During a recent roundtable discussion "Price of Sustain

During a recent roundtable discussion "Price of Sustainability: Who Pays?" Farmers and industry leaders discussed ideas and strategies to work towards a sustainable food supply chain. (Photo: Iowa Soybean Association).

The price of sustainability: who pays?

July 21, 2022 | Kriss Nelson

Fulfilling demand for a sustainable food supply does not come cheap.

Recently, the United Soybean Board (USB) and Center for Food Integrity (CFI) held a roundtable discussion involving panelists of farmers and industry leaders to discuss how the food industry and agriculture can collaborate on sustainability decisions.

Tim Bardole, Iowa Soybean Association at-large director and USB director, participated in the event along with fellow USB director Laurie Isley a Michigan soybean farmer.

“The most important thing about sustainability roundtables is getting several levels of the supply chain in the discussion,” says Bardole. “It is good to hear different people’s ideas of sustainability. Then we can work together to agree and move forward to find ways to solve problems.”

Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI, moderated the roundtable discussion.

“This is the beginning of what we hope will be a longer and broader conversation about how we equitably distribute the cost related to sustainability,” says Arnot. “Who pays, and how do we equitably distribute those costs?”

Q: What’s the one thing you would like food system stakeholders to better understand about the investment you are making in sustainability?

“Soybean producers in this country are from family farms. Due to that, we care,” says Bardole. “We want to do everything we can to make our ground more productive and better for the next generation.”

According to Bardole, in the last 20 years, land use efficiency by soybean producers has increased by 60% per bushel. Energy use efficiency has increased by 46% per bushel, and greenhouse gas emissions have improved by 43% per bushel, thanks to soil conservation improvement of 34% per acre.

“When you look at the 34% per acre and how much we have improved in the last 20 years, there’s still a lot of improvement that can be done as long as we can afford to do it.”

Bardole wants stakeholders to understand that row crop farming doesn’t always make sense financially.

“The problem with high-input costs is a big hurdle many farmers won’t be able to handle by themselves,” he says. “We will have to have assistance to keep doing what we are doing.”

Isley says she would like more understanding that farmers care about the crops they raise and they care about their farms.

“We have been on this farmland for 150 years,” she says. “We have hopes it carries on for generations to come. We drink the water that is on the land we are farming. We make these changes because they are the right thing to do. We want to be sustainable because we want long-term impact, but we must continue to be profitable.”

Isley says there is also a struggle for farmers to spread that message.

“We are a small part of the population,” she says. “One thing we would like stakeholders to know is if you can help us share the message of what farmers are doing to promote sustainability and put those practices into place, the better off it is.”

Hearing from the industry

Tyson Foods is in a unique position where they not only have a lot of consumer-facing brands but are also engaged in agriculture.  

Q: What is Tyson doing today to incentivize your supply chain to embrace more sustainable production practices?

Justin Ransom, senior director for sustainable food strategy for Tyson Foods, says they set a 2 million acre commitment to work with farmers and improve practices in 2018.

As part of this work, Ransom says they have been focused on learning, which included pilot programs to help find what kind of incentives work for farmers.

Ransom says it wasn’t until the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities program came out this year did Tyson Foods begin thinking broadly across their entire business in terms of all of the feed that is required to nourish animals, including the work that needs to be done to achieve the science-based target of a 30% reduction in carbon by 2030.

“We have begun working in that space and have better ideas about impact through modeling,” he says. “I think we are finally getting to where we can engage more meaningfully so farmers can understand what we are trying to do. We are all working on the same page: trying to tell a better story and create the impact we have been called to make.”

Q: What are the barriers that must be overcome to create a truly sustainable supply chain?

Ransom says trust and transparency are what first comes to mind.

“Currently, we have very limited transparency on where our grain comes from,” he says. “We have even less transparency on practices used for the origin of the grain. How do we begin to create some transparencies in the supply chain so we can say we are raising our birds, cattle or hogs with grain that came from the most sustainable production practices so we can tie it end to end to the consumer? We can’t do it by ‘trust us, we have a great supply chain, and we are confident in it.’ That doesn’t get us very farm with our customers.”

Hansel New, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) director of sustainability programs, says they are driven to emphasize the ongoing need to communicate what farmers are doing. One way they are working toward this goal is through “Nerd Herd.”

New says the DFA has been using Nerd Herd on social media and already has seen positive engagement efforts on both sides.

“It is a light-hearted way of publicly engaging consumers and talking about how it takes a whole herd of people to make sustainability happen on farms,” he says. “It takes farmers, herd nutritionists, veterinarians. It’s an all-in effort.”

DFA is also working with their 13,000 farmer-members to share consumer trends, including what is on consumer minds around sustainability and opportunities for their producers to engage.

Q: How do we create a better alignment of what the supply chain expects and what farmers expect?

New says a part of the conversation must be longevity.

“Sustainability has to be made concrete and real and the ‘why’ must be articulated,” he says. “Why is this important? Is this a passing phase? Farmers have seen a lot of things come and go over the years.”

There also must be the right market signals to farmers.

“We have to keep in mind financial incentives. We realize these changes introducing risk on the farmer’s behalf,” he says. “Beyond the financial bit, what are the necessary technical and human cultural resources?”

Continuing the discussion

Bardole says the discussion was successful in bringing to the forefront subjects soybean farmers find important and hearing issues and ideas from other levels of the food supply chain.

“The one place I think we’re all on the same page is wanting to do what is best for our soils, our local ecosystems, and the environment,” he says.