This summer, over 100 scientists sent the world a dire warning: The rise in global temperatures, linked to increasing pressure on fertile soil, risks jeopardizing global food security.
The warning came from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as part of its annual report on climate change and agriculture.
“Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines, increased prices, reduced nutrient quality and supply chain disruptions,” said Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III, which focuses on climate mitigation.
But all is not lost. The IPCC offered a potential roadmap out of the pending doomsday scenario: the scaling up of new, more efficient, and sustainable agriculture technologies and methods.
For the food and beverage sector, the report and its recommendations came as no surprise. Industry leaders have been keenly aware of the impact climate change could have on the supply of the raw ingredients they need. Not only are food and beverage brands working feverishly to avoid being seen as part of the problem, but they are also looking to be part of the solution.
It’s not hard to find case studies of food and beverage companies shifting to more responsible land use for farming. Mars’ Sustainable in a Generation Plan and Unilever’s Sustainable Living plan, for example, are pushing sustainable agriculture forward. In addition, General Mills and Kellogg Co. made commitments to responsibly source priority ingredients like corn, wheat, cocoa and palm oil by the end of next year.
While these programs help companies move in the right direction, the enormity of the challenge is far too great for any one company to tackle without like-minded partners.
That’s where Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture steps in. The Alliance links together leading companies with grower organizations, academia, conservation groups, and public-sector partners to create more productive and profitable opportunities across the agricultural value chain.
“When we were founded in 2006, some thought the idea that rivals could collaborate pre-competitively to create better outcomes for agriculture and the environment sounded too good to be true,” Betsy Hickman, vice president of stakeholder engagement and implementation at Field to Market, told CR Magazine.
Over the past 13 years, Field to Market has proved the naysayers wrong. Examples include the group’s work with Unilever and PepsiCo, which utilize Field to Market projects to meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability source raw materials.
Field to Market has a long history of supporting Unilever’s work with soybean farmers in Iowa who produce the oil used in Hellmann's mayonnaise. By encouraging farmers to adopt the sustainable practice of cover crops, the partners hope to improve soil health and water quality in Iowa, where nearly 90 percent of land is devoted to agriculture.
Used by farmers for centuries, cover crops reduce nutrient losses to the environment by protecting the soil surface from runoff and erosion. The practice keeps nutrients like nitrogen within the soil—reducing the need for fertilizers, improving long-term soil health, and preventing unwanted runoff from reaching local water sources.
More than 150 farmers signed up for the project in its first year, including many who raise corn, a key ingredient for PepsiCo. With some matchmaking by Field to Market, Unilever and PepsiCo teamed up to fund Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a local nonprofit, to educate farmers about the benefits of cover crops while offering technical assistance to successfully implement this new practice.
For many farmers, investing in soil health improvements for the first time can be risky, as there’s no guarantee it will pay off economically. To help remove the risk, last fall PepsiCo and Unilever compensated 127 corn and soybean farmers for together growing over 20,000 acres of cover crop. Both companies will pay these farmers to grow cover crops through 2025.
“What is truly exciting about this approach is that it goes beyond measurement to deliver impact by focusing on supporting behavior change in farmers,” Hickman said. And she predicts we’ll see similar partnerships emerge across the agricultural supply chain.
“There is a competitive advantage to building a long-term, sustainable supply of the raw materials and ingredients these businesses depend upon in a hotter, scarcer and more crowded world,” Hickman added. “Rather than waiting for improvements in their supply chain to come as result of setting a sustainability target, we are seeing more and more companies roll up their sleeves to work in partnership to improve outcomes for farmers, business and the planet.”
This article was also published in CR Magazine.
Image credit: Melissa Askew/Unsplash
Maggie Kohn is excited to be a contributor to Triple Pundit to illustrate how business can achieve positive change in the world while supporting long-term growth. Maggie worked for more than 20 years at the biopharma giant Merck & Co., Inc., leading corporate responsibility and social business initiatives. She currently writes, speaks and consults on corporate responsibility and social impact when she is not busy fostering kittens for her local animal shelter. Click here to learn more.