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.

Tom Murray headshot

This Unlikely Partnership Drives Positive Change in the Food Sector

Most of us assume that environmental NGOs and major multinational companies are like oil and water, but a seemingly unlikely partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund and Smithfield Foods proves otherwise.
By Tom Murray
monarch butterfly habitat

(Image: A biogas capture project on a Missouri hog farm—which helps restore native prairies and monarch butterfly habitat—is just one part of Smithfield Foods' unlikely partnership with Environmental Defense Fund.)

It is imperative that farmers, food companies, policymakers, and environmental advocates collaborate to figure out how to feed a growing global population while minimizing environmental impacts and building a more resilient food system. One company that is stepping up to this challenge is Smithfield Foods.

Over the past six years, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been working with the global food company, which is also the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer, to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and environmental impacts from its operations and across its supply chain. And last week, Smithfield president and CEO Ken Sullivan and I were both at the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit in New York City to talk about our work together and how partnerships can accelerate environmental results.

The common themes in our collaboration are an ambitious goal and a focus on solutions that generate shared value for the environment, farmers and the bottom line. That shared value creates lasting commitment to sustainable agricultural practices and can serve as a model for other business leaders seeking to address the growing demand for climate action from investors, consumers and the next generation.

Here are two key ways Smithfield is raising the bar for corporate sustainability leadership—and proving what’s possible for other food companies.  

Commitment to big, hairy sustainability goals

Based on nearly 30 years of forging unexpected partnerships with high impact companies, I’ve seen firsthand how setting big goals can unlock innovation and big results for the environment. 

Our collaboration with Smithfield began when our mutual partner, Walmart, engaged its suppliers in reducing GHG emissions in its supply chain. Smithfield stepped forward to become the first major animal agriculture company to address the environmental footprint of the grain it grows for animal feed, by setting a goal to implement climate-smart agriculture practices on 75 percent of its grain acreage. (Animals consume nearly 40 percent of all corn grown in the U.S., so companies like Smithfield can play a critical role in ensuring that grain is grown as sustainably as possible.)

Through its work with EDF, Smithfield built a grain sustainability program that enabled the company to surpass this goal in 2018, hitting 80 percent of its grain acreage, the equivalent of more than half a million acres. Smithfield’s ongoing sustainability efforts continue to support farmers in implementing these practices, which include diversifying their crop rotations, growing cover crops, and optimizing fertilizer applications. 

Reaching this milestone highlighted the company’s appetite for sustainability leadership and revealed new business opportunities for the company and its farmers. 

In 2015, EDF challenged Smithfield to “think big” when the company committed to setting a new sustainability goal. And Smithfield seized the opportunity to lead the livestock industry by following with a commitment to reduce absolute GHG emissions 25 percent by 2025 across its supply chain, from feed grain to packaged bacon. This ambitious goal has the potential to reduce emissions by more than 4 million metric tons, the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from the road.

And just last year, Smithfield committed to installing manure lagoon covers and digesters on the majority of its company-owned and contract hog finishing farms in four states over the next 10 years. The new technology can capture approximately 85,000 metric tons of the potent GHG methane each year and turn it into biogas.

Collaborating for scale

Ambitious climate commitments cannot be achieved alone. Only by working together can we accelerate environmental progress across global supply chains with the scale and speed required. Smithfield’s GHG goal is no different: It requires collaboration within different divisions of the company, across its own supply chain, and with diverse partners outside of the company. 

Smithfield’s partnership with EDF is the first such example: While we don’t agree on everything, we have found substantial common ground in developing Smithfield’s sustainability goals and initiatives. One of our focus areas has been identifying tools and practices that reduce environmental impacts while generating benefits for farmers.

These programs also benefit Smithfield: By building relationships with local grain growers, Smithfield increased the proportion of grain it buys directly from farmers from less than 10 percent to more than 60 percent in just 10 years, saving $8 million in grain purchasing costs in 2018 alone.

Smithfield and EDF also collaborated with the University of Minnesota’s NorthStar Institute for Sustainable Enterprise to develop a detailed GHG footprint for the company. The analysis created a map of emissions “hotspots” that guides Smithfield toward the highest-impact opportunities to reduce emissions. And the company is partnering with Dominion Energy to deliver on its commitment to install manure lagoon covers and digesters. 

Smithfield and EDF are also working with Roeslein Alternative Energy to capture biogas on the company’s Missouri hog farms. This collaboration presented an unexpected opportunity to restore native prairies and monarch butterfly habitat. To multiply the benefits of the initiative, the prairie grasses can be harvested and used as additional fodder for biogas generation. 

It will take more collaborations like these at scale, from within and across industries and supply chains, to bring about the transformational changes we need to create a world where business and the environment can thrive in unison. 

The future of sustainability partnerships

As we look to the future, EDF will continue to work with Smithfield and other major companies to identify new ways to accelerate the transition to a 100 percent clean economy. Forward-thinking companies are investing in Fourth Wave technologies like sensors and data analytics to supercharge business and sustainability. EDF is also collaborating with business leaders to make their voices heard in the halls of government to influence smart climate and environmental policy

When companies take the leap to embrace ambitious goals and new partners, environmental and business benefits follow. 

Tom Murray headshot

Tom Murray is Vice President of EDF+Business at Environmental Defense Fund. He focuses on challenging businesses and investors to raise the bar for corporate sustainability leadership by setting aggressive, science-based goals; collaborating for scale and impact; accelerating environmental innovation, and supporting smart environmental safeguards.


Read more stories by Tom Murray