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Andrew Burger headshot

Partnerships Are Important to Improving the Sustainability of Animal Agriculture

Executing corporate sustainability plans often creates what may seem like strange bedfellows—leading environmental organizations partnering with multinational corporations, for instance.
By Andrew Burger
partnerships for corporate sustainability

This article series is sponsored by Smithfield Foods and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

The global community finds itself in the midst of a quandary: how to provide adequate nutrition, including higher demand for protein, for a growing population that's expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 while reducing environmental impacts and utilizing natural resources in a more sustainable way. Finding solutions has risen to the top of the agenda at leading agricultural and food industry players such as Smithfield Foods, a U.S.-based $15 billion global food company and the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer. 

Creating and executing corporate sustainability plans often creates what may seem like strange bedfellows—leading environmental organizations partnering with multinational corporations, for instance. Breaking the mold that shaped their relationship marked by differing opinions decades ago, corporations and environmental organizations are now finding there's a lot of common ground between them. 

Smithfield "was the first major protein company to set an ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goal to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2025, which is the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from our roads," company management highlights. Intra- and cross-sector partnerships play an important role in Smithfield's emissions-reduction and sustainability strategy, as they do across the agricultural sector. "Environmental stewardship requires a tremendous amount of innovation, ingenuity and unique problem-solving to truly address serious environmental challenges—and Smithfield has been proud to lead this process with several partners and projects," Stewart Leeth, vice president of regulatory affairs and chief sustainability officer for Smithfield Foods, told 3p. 

Partnerships are essential to minimizing impact  

The animal agriculture industry is under increasing pressure to offer healthier foods and distribute them in ways that reduce impact on the environment. That includes realizing dramatic reductions in the industry’s associated GHG emissions.

Smithfield and other food industry leaders are responding with ambitious sustainability plans that reduce energy, water usage and waste, and other forms of environmental pollution—in Smithfield’s case, throughout an organization that employs 54,000 people globally. 

In an effort to reduce its footprint, Smithfield is reaching out across the value chain, joining with suppliers and other business partners to find and implement ways to produce and transport more and healthier food with minimal environmental impact. The company also found a partner in the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). 

"While environmental stewardship is just one facet of our company’s industry-leading sustainability program, it includes a company-wide effort among all employees to aggressively reduce water and energy use and the amount of waste sent to landfill. However, being a part of true environmental sustainability involves much more than simply reducing our own environmental footprint. As part of our commitment to the environment, we have formed partnerships with environmental or environmentally-minded organizations, including EDF,” said Leeth. 

A holistic approach to raising hogs, bringing pork products to market

Smithfield takes a holistic, enterprise-wide approach in crafting and carrying out its sustainability plans, Leeth said. The company's emissions-reduction efforts, for example, span across its operations—including fertilizer optimization on grain farms and biogas projects on hog farms, equipment upgrades at company facilities, and the optimization of transport networks. 

Forming partnerships with like-minded organizations, both inside the industry and across sectors, are pivotal aspects of Smithfield's strategy. "Any company that sets an important goal and strategy to holistically reduce GHG emissions cannot do it alone: forming partnerships is invaluable at all stages of planning, execution, and measurement and reporting," Leeth told 3p.  

Smithfield’s work includes new business ventures and millions in capital investments to install waste digesters and manure lagoons covers on 90 percent of the company’s hog finishing spaces in four U.S. states. The initiative should go a long way toward helping Smithfield realize its emissions-reduction goals by creating renewable natural gas (RNG) from methane produced by manure. Smithfield's commitment  goes beyond manure lagoons at farms the company owns. It extends to include contract farms—independent farmers who raise hogs for Smithfield—and opens doors for other hog and livestock farms to join or follow their best practices and lessons learned. 

The company created the Smithfield Renewables platform in 2017 to further its emissions-reduction goals. The platform brings the company's carbon reduction and renewable energy efforts under one umbrella, so to speak. Emphasizing the holistic approach Smithfield has adopted in pursuing its sustainability goals, management likes to say that these efforts extend from "farm to facility to fork." 

The manure-lagoon covers and waste digesters Smithfield is installing at its hog farms in North Carolina, Missouri, Utah and Virginia capture GHGs, such as methane, convert them into RNG, and feed that RNG into natural gas pipelines for use off-site by energy customers. 

Smithfield's renewable energy efforts don't end with its investments in anaerobic digesters and RNG. The company is also installing wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) energy systems on its hog farms and facilities, reducing GHG emissions and providing clean power for its facilities and surrounding communities. 

Fostering energy efficiency and sustainable farming practices

It's said that a kilowatt-hour, or kilojoule, of energy saved is the cheapest and most effective means of reducing energy costs and helping to mitigate carbon emissions. Seeking to take advantage of this, Smithfield made multimillion-dollar investments to upgrade plant equipment, such as installing LED lighting and streamlining production processes to increase energy efficiency. The company also is making a strong push to reduce waste at its hog farms, as well as processing and distribution facilities. A number of our food manufacturing facilities "have already achieved zero waste-to-landfill status, which is not an easy accomplishment," Leeth highlighted.

Further up the supply chain, the company is fostering sustainable farming practices that optimize fertilizer and water use and minimize associated fertilizer run-off into waterways. "We started by providing agronomy advice and tools to farmers to help them incorporate more efficient practices that produce the same amount of grain using less fertilizer," Leeth explained. The initiative started in 2013, through a partnership with EDF.

As a result of these efforts, Smithfield recently surpassed its goal to source three-quarters of its feed grain from farms using efficient fertilizer and soil health practices. In addition to improving soil health and reducing GHG emissions, these efforts are also boosting Smithfield's financial bottom line by sourcing more local grain, the company says. 

Further downstream toward consumers, Smithfield is working to redesign and produce packaging that is more sustainable. It’s also re-configuring its transportation network so as to reduce the distance its hogs and products travel by as many as 19 million miles in the next five years. The company estimates that these efforts collectively will save more than $50 million in transportation-related costs, while reducing GHG emissions significantly. 

“Our sustainability efforts are having a positive impact on the environment while generating additional value for our company and our business partners, creating a win-win situation for everyone involved,” stated Leeth. “Ultimately, it further showcases our company’s commitment to producing good food in a responsible way.” 

Image courtesy of Smithfield Foods

Andrew Burger headshot

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger