Food Retailers’ Ability to Meet Consumer Demand Relies on Farm Level Sustainability

Today’s consumers increasingly want to know what’s in the food they purchase, and if it was produced using sustainably-sourced ingredients. In turn, major food retailers are stepping up their involvement in partnering with crop input suppliers and farmers at the field level.

Sustainable fertilizer technology and crop production practices play a fundamental role in the circular economy of food production from the field to the consumer. That’s why food retailers want to know more about fertilizer sustainability.

Challenges for Food Companies

“More and more, food companies are asking what can be done to insure there will be a sustainable source of food ingredients to stock the shelves with the brands consumers want, know and love,” says Paul Duncan, director of Sustainability for AnuviaTM Plant Nutrients. “There’s a realization that if farmers can’t profitably and sustainably produce the needed ingredients, the big food companies won’t have a business.” 

Duncan notes that large food companies all have corporate sustainability goals. These usually run along the lines of reducing greenhouse gases, reducing nitrogen leaching and pollution, improving water quality, and advancing other environmental concerns. 

“Some companies aren’t reaching these goals, and deadlines are being pushed back. Solving the challenge of producing sustainably-sourced ingredients to feed a growing population involves a close examination of the entire food supply chain,” says Duncan. “It involves determining where in the supply chain can you reduce the carbon footprint during the life cycle of a product from field to consumer.”

Food Company Takes Leadership Role

To remain in business, farmers must turn a profit. There’s an opportunity for food companies to help ag input providers think about the ways their products and services can help profitably solve some of these sustainability issues for farmers and the supply chain. Companies can think creatively about the way current products or their product pipeline can bring solutions.

A case in point is Smithfield Foods. The company takes a hard-hitting approach to establish and measure sustainability goals to ensure sustainably-sourced ingredients for their food brands.

“We see concerns about sustainability expanding beyond the environment to include how food is grown and manufactured. More and more, food retailers are looking at their suppliers and expecting suppliers to do the same in their own supply chain,” says Stewart Leeth, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and Chief Sustainability Officer for Smithfield. 

“For Smithfield, that means looking at how animals are grown on our farms and those of our contract farmers, and the feed and medicines we use to raise those animals. Manure management is also part of it – how manure is handled on farms on a daily basis. We’re trying to enhance our transparency in these areas, as well as in the preparation and packaging of the food we make.”

Meeting Food Retailers’ Needs

Sustainability is ingrained in Smithfield Foods culture. Our sustainability initiatives differentiate our company from competitors while making our business more efficient and competitive,” says Leeth.

For example, in 2013 one of Smithfield’s largest food retailers began looking at grain supply chain sustainability. “Along with the Environmental Defense Fund, they came to us and other food companies, asking if we could develop a program which would have meaningful improvements, a sustainable impact,” says Leeth.

In response, Smithfield set a goal to have 75% of its directly sourced grain supply, or 450,000 acres, engaged in conservation practices aimed at reducing loss of nitrogen into the environment. The company exceeded this goal by engaging 80% percent of its grain supply chain, used to feed the company’s hogs, in farming practices that are both more sustainable and will reduce production costs for grain farmers. 

Grain production is the first step in the vertically integrated company’s supply chain, making this accomplishment one of the key ways Smithfield developed and is now working toward its ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25 percent by 2025 throughout its entire supply chain – the first commitment of its kind from a protein company.

Kraig Westerbeek, Senior Director of Smithfield Renewables and Hog Production Environmental Affairs, explains, “We’re leveraging a wide range of projects to help reach that goal, including grain supply chain fertilizer optimization and ‘manure-to-energy’ projects that convert manure into renewable natural gas. Last fall, we announced the nationwide expansion of our “manure-to-energy” projects, with a goal to implement projects on 90% of Smithfield’s hog finishing spaces in North Carolina, Utah and Virginia and nearly all of its hog finishing spaces in Missouri over the next 10 years.” 

Technology Aligned with Food Companies

To further reduce its carbon footprint, Smithfield is working with Anuvia Plant Nutrients to optimize fertilizer usage. “We were intrigued by Anuvia’s patented process to reuse organic matter found in hog manure, a byproduct of our hog operations, to create a commercial-grade fertilizer,” says Westerbeek.

A stark contrast from other fertilizer companies, Anuvia is producing a sustainable, efficient, and economically viable alternative to synthetic fertilizer using organic matter that offers the potential to create a revolutionary change in the fertilizer business.

“Smithfield recognized Anuvia’s bio-based fertilizer as an opportunity to enhance fertilizer efficiency within our grain supply chain and the efficiency of the farmers who grow grain we may purchase in the future. In turn, this effort is communicated to our food retailers and others to show steps being taken to ensure sustainable production of food products,” says Westerbeek.

“We hope to increase use of this fertilizer technology, which is an effective substitute for synthetic fertilizers and meets the sustainability goals of our Smithfield Agronomics program, known as SmithfieldGro. It also fits with our food retailers desire to purchase from companies with sustainably-sourced ingredients.”

Technology Designed for Sustainable Food Production

“We’ve got a great story for food retailers to tell their consumers. Our technology is aimed at creating an abundant tomorrow for farmers, the food industry and the planet, says Hugh MacGillivray, chief commercial officer, Anuvia Plant Nutrients.

“We manufacture bio-based enhanced efficiency fertilizers to drive sustainability at the farm level through the food supply chain. Our bio-based technology delivers a positive yield benefit, feeds the soil and contributes to reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint – all factors that meet the need for sustainably-sourced food ingredients. 

“An added bonus is this fertilizer technology is plug and play. With little to no financial or operational barriers to adoption, Anuvia can make an overnight impact on the agriculture industry and food sustainability.”

MacGillivray explains that the company’s sustainable fertilizer technology supports a circular economy.  

Nutrients in the soil nourish plants that begin the food chain. The end of the food chain, which has been largely ignored, creates waste and crowds landfills. Anuvia completes the food chain cycle by returning those organic materials to the soil to feed the next cycle, leading to a sustainable supply of food ingredients for food retailers and consumers. 

“By partnering with food companies like Smithfield Foods, we can use recycled organic materials to create bio-based fertilizers that close the loop in a circular economy and make sense for farmers, food companies and consumers.”

Proven Results

The result of the delivery of nutrients at the right time is crops that deliver higher yields and increased ROI. Repeatedly, through multiple studies and across geographies, SymTRX has been proven to increase yields and profits for farmers. Would you like to see the trial results? Sign up and we’ll deliver them to your inbox.

This article includes excerpts from “The role of fertilizer in sustainable food production: a food retailer’s perspective”, Fertlizer Focus, September/October 2019

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