Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Land O’Lakes Implements ‘Insights Engine’ to Demystify Food Labels, Better Convey Farmer Sustainability



Matt Carstens, senior vice president for Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, would like to apologize.

Not for something he did, but for the breakdown of communication between farmer and consumer that has been going on across the food and agriculture industries for far too long.

“When you go to the grocery store, you’re going to see tons of absence claims with perceived health benefits that aren’t really there,” Carstens said. “That’s the challenge, and I blame agriculture and companies like ourselves for not telling that story prior to now.”

These absence claims, claims about what the product does not contain, like “organic,” “non-GMO” and “antibiotic-free,” have contributed to a muddled marketplace, where products advertising perceived benefits can beat the better product. Just think, have you ever been in a situation where you opted for one product over the other simply because it was labeled as organic?

This is just one of many scenarios Americans must deal with when shopping in a grocery store. It’s also where Carstens sees data-based storytelling about the products we buy as a way to better engage consumers about production and sustainability practices going on at today’s farms.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to tell that story that is not absence claim-based, but more, ‘Here’s what you need to know about how this product was raised and produced, does this resonate?’” Carstens said. “In a lot of ways, that’s going to be centered around the environment. That’s going to be a successful path forward for those companies that figure it out.”

The farmer perspective

For Cassidy Johnston, a New Mexico cattle rancher and sustainability officer for the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, being sustainable is not a marketing ploy – it is a necessity to ensure the resources needed to raise her cattle are available for years to come.

“I really just want food to become more of a mainstream concern, not in the negative way it is now, but where we ask ourselves what we all can do about food,” Johnston said. “We all eat it, it’s not just about the farmers, the producers, the packers, the feedlots or the retailers, it’s about all of us.”

Today’s developments in key areas like genetics, traceability of food produced and transparency with consumers, Johnston explained, are all exciting and necessary to ensure farmers have a prosperous future.

Just like in the grocery store, though, she sees consumers needing to make a crucial decision.

“At some point, we are going to have decide whether efficiency and sustainability are always the same thing because when it comes to animal welfare, that’s a qualitative idea,” she said.

With the world’s population on pace to reach nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050, farmers need to continue to improve upon existing sustainability and efficiency practices. This poses a dilemma for consumers as claims such as “grass-fed beef” and “non-GMO” have become selling points for major restaurant and grocery chains. Simply put, the idea of eating a burger that originated from a cow freely grazing a field is a pleasant idea -- but not efficient enough to cater to a growing, hungry population.

Enter today’s feedlots and genetically-modified crops, two efficient growing practices that are negatively perceived by consumers today.

Johnston is hoping to see farmers learn to tell the stories about how they grow their food “effectively and excessively enough” to get consumers “invested” in the agricultural process.

Letting numbers tell the story

Drawing from his Iowan farming roots, Carstens sees farmers as the “original conservationists” as they seek new and innovative ways to ensure the lands they live and work on can be used by future generations.

“The more that they can take these new technologies, products and practices to put them into motion in a way that is good for them, they’re going to rally around that, which is why we’ve made some of the strong progress that we have in such short order,” Carstens said.

This is where the work of Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN is most vital.

Operating as a co-op, Land O’Lakes has worked to form a relationship with its network of farmers and companies to further achieve sustainability goals and maximize the effects of implementing efficient, environmentally-friendly technology and production practices.

In order to quantify the impact its farmers have made, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN is currently beta testing a tool it is calling an “Insights Engine.” The company believes this will provide farmers a method of gathering data on their operations to help better understand how management and conservation practices are working and can be improved.

Once fully operational, Carstens sees the data collected by the Insights Engine serving as an important bridge to the consumer -- allowing for authentic, palatable storytelling to better convey the complexities of agriculture. As farming continues to look to a future where output far exceeds input, the hope is Land O'Lakes’ tool can debunk the supermarket myths that are misleading today’s consumers.

“This data has been something that has been part of our heritage of really strong collection for 10 years,” Carstens explained. “We’re now just looking at it through the lens of sustainability and not only trying to keep that good work that has been going on at farms but using it in a way to help message a more authentic story to the consumer through the value chain.”

Photo: Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN