At a time when sustainability is driving the choices of several stakeholders – consumers, customers, investors and others – food companies can help build their sustainability success story by starting at the farm gate. According to Roxi Beck, consumer engagement director at The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), touting the technology and sustainable practices used on today’s farms can build credibility and trust. This is true when companies are sourcing meat, milk, eggs, grains and spices, as well as sourcing feed for livestock, poultry and farmed fish.
Are You Sustainable Enough?
“Our CFI consumer research has shown time and time again that consumers trust farmers and want to hear from them,” said Beck. It’s also reinforced by a recent Gallup poll showing farmers and agriculture top the list of trustworthy business and industry sectors. “Implementing communication strategies that highlight farmer innovation focused on sustainability will engage audiences that want transparency about where their food comes from, how it’s being produced, who’s producing it and how it impacts their health and our planet.”
It’s especially important to Millennials and Gen Z, who are much more open to technology as a way to solve global challenges, she said.
Particularly for larger food brands, earning trust can be an uphill climb. It’s part of the “big is bad” bias where consumers believe companies are motivated solely by profit and not the public’s best interest.
“With that in mind, it’s important to assess whether you’re ready to answer questions from more curious and skeptical consumers about whether your business is sustainable and whether they can trust you to do the right thing,” said Beck.
Sustainability and On-Farm Innovation
The food industry often talks about the disconnect between consumers and their food, which can perpetuate misinformation and unfounded fears. We also see a food industry and farmer gap. Whether food companies source from farmers directly or indirectly, they may not be fully aware of what’s happening on today’s farms to consistently produce more food, more sustainably, said Beck.
“Seed varieties are continually refined through genetic modification and gene editing, which reduces herbicide applications, decreases weed and insect pressure, increases yields and decreases the amount of water needed,” said Cindy Pulskamp, who along with her husband Neal, grows soybeans, wheat and sugar beets near Hillsboro, North Dakota. “Biotechnology can also enhance nutrition. For example, through gene editing, we now have a heart-healthy high-oleic soybean oil. Gene editing can also address allergens in crops.”
Jim Douglas, a soybean farmer from Flat Rock, Indiana, uses GPS, monitors and sensors on his family farm to track crop yields and inputs like seed and crop protection products.
“With these variable rate technologies, I can change seeding and application rates more precisely, ensuring I’m applying the right amounts of seed and fertilizer,” Douglas said.
On soybean farms and beyond, farmers are incorporating regenerative farming practices like no-till and crop rotation to build and maintain organic matter and improve soil health.
As a result of these efforts, soil on U.S. farms stores 100 times more carbon than the U.S. emits each year. According to the 2021 U.S. Soy Sustainability Overview from the United Soybean Board (USB), between 1980 and 2020, conservation efforts by U.S. soybean farmers have improved:
- Land use efficiency by 48% per bushel
- Irrigation water use efficiency by 60% per bushel
- Energy use efficiency by 46% per bushel
- Greenhouse gas emissions efficiency by 43% per bushel
- Soil conservation by 34% per acre
- Soy production by 130%, using roughly the same amount of land
When it comes to livestock, many producers house animals in modern facilities where they are provided with carefully formulated feed and continuous access to water. They also use software that monitors the amount of food and water consumed and the climate of the barns. Manure from those barns is used as fertilizer for crops, which often are used to feed the animals in a sustainable, circular fashion. An increasing number of farmers are using methane digesters to convert manure into fuel or alternative energy that provides power to local utilities.
Sustainability successes abound across agriculture. Dairy farmers used 30% less water from 2007 to 2017 and achieved a 19% reduction in the carbon footprint per gallon of milk. Between 1961 and 2018, U.S. beef produced nearly 60% more beef while lowering its greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef by more than 40 percent. And pig farmers used nearly 75% less land and 25% less water from 1960 to 2015.
Ambitious sustainability goals have been set including the U.S. pork industry committing to reducing GHG emissions by 40% by 2030 (from a 2015 baseline) and the U.S. cattle industry committing to carbon neutrality by 2040. The U.S. dairy industry has committed to becoming greenhouse gas neutral by 2050.
Tip of the Iceberg
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Beck. “Modern practices on today’s farms allow farmers and ranchers to produce more food using fewer resources than at any time in the past.”
It’s these kinds of achievements and continuous improvement that consumers are looking for to feel assured that those growing, raising and producing food are doing so with integrity and care for our natural resources.
“It’s a story food companies can leverage when communicating their sustainability journeys,” said Beck. “The key is to foster stronger food industry and farmer relationships for a broader understanding of the innovation taking place across American agriculture.”
Learn more during a Mon., Sept. 26, webinar “The Key to Building Brand Trust: Sharing the Story of On-Farm Innovation.” Register here.