Although a majority of the partnerships discussed at Sustainable Agricultural Partnerships 2010 focused on the environment, alliances prioritizing economic and social impacts were also featured. In an effort to stimulate sustainability in the dairy industry, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is engaged in a project called the Farm Energy Audit Program (FEAP). FEAP educates farmers about cost savings and GHG emission reductions associated with energy efficiency in order to drive audits. The USDA offers grants to farmers to diffuse the cost of energy audits (which average $1,500), to help farmers understand where and how they can implement efficiencies. Implementing the recommendations is estimated to average $11,000, but with a reduction of 30,000 kWh per year, farmers can save about $2,400 annually, according to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. All this adds up to a payback period of six years. In order to facilitate implementation, industry organizations are considering offering microloans to dairy farmers. More financing solutions like this are direly needed and do exist; in the Northeast, The Carrot Project provides microloans to small and mid-sized farmers. While funding small farmers in developing countries has grown popular, there is clearly a need for similar programs to support agriculture here in the U.S.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters focuses efforts on human and economic development in the communities in which it operates, namely Nicaragua, Mexico and Guatemala. Coffee farming families in these countries experience a few months every year during which they cannot afford to feed themselves their traditional diet. Green Mountain sees a direct link between the quality of coffee and the quality of the farmer’s life. As a result, the company worked with the local communities to develop a shared strategy for improving local economics and ensuring that the families are able to feed themselves by diversifying crops to include food crops. Microloans, education and scholarships are also among Green Mountain’s efforts. (To learn more, watch this Just Means interview with Rick Peyser of Green Mountain from the conference.)
In addition to the widely accepted sustainability practices presented at the conference, the biotech industry also took the stage. While some presentations were pure sales pitch, others were personal. Ronald Moore is a board member of American Soybean Association and an Illinois soybean farmer who works the land that once belonged to his grandfather. He uses genetically modified soybeans on his farm because he believes that we need to use the best technology of our time to address land, water and energy use as well as soil loss and climate impact. He believes this is sustainable agriculture and he is offended that farmers like him are regarded otherwise. Moore relayed that he does not want third-party certification because he has limited ability to absorb the cost for a sustainable value add and he doesn’t see the benefit; his soybeans might be sold to Tyson for chicken feed, to ADM for hog feed or to China. None of these end users demand sustainability of his soybeans, nor would they pay more for them. Echoing other farmers in the room, he said poignantly, “There’s no reason for me to be certified sustainable because I already am. … Am I going to do anything to harm my grandfather’s farm? Absolutely not.”
Heartfelt statements like those of Ronald Moore and other growers in attendance were by far the most profound at the conference. Unfortunately, dialogue between the growers and the companies did not flourish in the rapid-fire schedule of panels and five or ten-minute allotment for Q&A sessions. Overall it is clear that companies need to work more closely with the farmers in their supply chains to understand and address the specific issues barring them from sustainable efforts. On a higher level, carbon and water were tackled independently of each other at the conference, a sad truth that I find detrimental to both causes. (Simultaneous breakout sessions were divided between these two topics.) Truly capitalizing on the concept of partnerships should include marrying efforts around water and carbon to optimize efficiency and sustainability in the agricultural supply chain.
Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.