Herd Check

Food sustainability (even during a pandemic)

I was able to yet again reap the bounties of COVID-induced webinars. This time, I attended the 2020 Sustainable Ag Summit, which I highly recommend looking into if you are want an insightful, diverse and up-to-date roundup on the latest strides regarding agriculture and food sustainability as we know it.

There were plenty of great speakers, discussions and panels to choose from, but for the sake of my audience I’d like to address a big picture.

The angle I’ll be taking is this: what key points can we take away to maintain agribusiness and food sustainability in the midst of a global pandemic?

A collaborative effort

It’s really important to remember no one segment of food production is an island. We are all interconnected and all have roles to play in achieving our conservation and food sustainability goals.

A great illustration of this is the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a unique food industry partnership to develop solutions to promote regenerative agriculture. (And particularly relevant to those of us in this region!)

This partnership is made up of big-name familiar players including Cargill, Bayer, PepsiCo, Unilever, Walmart, the Wold Wildlife Foundation and more.

“I think the most important thing for all the attendees and everyone listening to this is that we all share what we’re learning,” said Margaret Henry, Director of Sustainable Agriculture for PepsiCo as part of a panel discussion. “I think for us themes important thing to moving beyond the short term is understanding what our goal is…for us that goal is to ensure there is a future for farming in the Midwest.”

She went on to stress the importance of it being a multi-layered effort on behalf of farmers, companies, policy makers and more to make it possible to achieve goals.

Others on the panel included Kate Schaffner, Manager of Sustainable Agriculture for the Kellogg Company, Mark Eastham, Senior Manager, of Sustainability at Walmart and Stewart Lindsay, Acting Managing Directors Corporate Engagement at The Nature Conservancy, who all echoed similar sentiments on how they work with building trust and relationships with their farmers who supply them.

In the time of COVID, where the supply chain has been absolutely thrown for a tailspin, I find these relationships to be more important than ever before.

Miscommunication, misunderstanding and frustrations stem from not having these discussions and collaborations between producers and the rest of the supply chain. Seeing these efforts amidst a struggling COVID economy is certainly encouraging.

The global scale starts on the farm

The grandeur of modern day agriculture has reached dizzying heights. It is so easy to get wrapped up in your industry, region or domestic issues that you forget about the importance of the global scale.

The session Solutions from the Land: Enabling Farmers to Meet Global Sustainable Development Goals and the Call for an Agricultural Renaissance was a great remedy for this ailment.

The panel was made up of Fred Yoder and A.G. Kawamura co-chairs from Solutions from the Land; Adrienne Mollor of Mollor Cranberries; Trey Hill or Harborview Farms; and Pat O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance.

In this session, Solutions from the Land presented its upcoming report. According to its website, SfL is “made up of farmer ambassadors and advisors, which describes North American agriculture’s perspective on how transformational change in the agricultural system can meet global mega-challenges represented by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

What I liked about their work, and their presentation, was how they rely heavily on farmers and the progress they are making on their own operations as case studies for food sustainability goals.

“We’ve always maintained and understood that the focus on agriculture these days has been not as broad as it could be, as it should be,” said Kawamura. “The other benefits that come from agriculture from managing landscape correctly is part of that dynamic that is taking that stage front and center in the world.”

In this pandemic-stricken world, this message cannot be more relevant.

As a cranberry producer, Mollor contributed some pertinent thoughts as well. Cranberry growers see themselves in an excellent position to be part of a sustainable solution on the global scales. As she pointed out – cranberries are a no-till long-lived crop that conserves soil and stores carbon. With new hybrids, they are able to enhance that even further.

“Here in Massachusetts, cranberry farms have been able to preserve 60,000 acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat,” she explained. “We are passionate about growing something so nutritious that also offers other outcomes and benefits.”

On her family’s farm, they have accomplished creating pollinator habitats, establishing farm reservoirs for closed tail water recovery and working with the towns municipalities to store water runoffs.

I love how drawing the lines between these localized, community collaborations with farmers is starting the discussion about how their products can be amped up on the global stage.

The pandemic has certainly rocked the boat of global trade quite a bit, so seeing where different crops and production practices fit into the larger puzzle is a big deal.

Let’s not forget about food waste

Another topic on my brain, especially in light of 2020, is food waste. (I think this is one place I’ll investigate a bit further next year.)

Food waste isn’t limited to the consumer – it’s an issue at all segments of production, harvest and processing. A panel featuring Leigh Prezkop, Program Specialist for Food Waste at World Wildlife Fund; Dana Gunders, Executive Director of REFED; and Monica McBride, World Wildlife Fund, Director of Agricultural and Environmental Metrics & SISC Steering Committee tackled this by covering the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC) – a new metric to track loss and maximize value on the farm level.

SISC allows producers to benchmark, compare and communicate their sustainability performance.

About 40% of all food goes to waste, Gunders explained to listeners, part of what pushed the SISC measurement after two years of work. All together, that food is worth 218 billion dollars. Reread that number.

“The resource impacts of this are enormous,” said Gunders. By the numbers that waste in the U.S. alone equates to:

8% of all global GHG emissions

21% of all freshwater

19% of all fertilizer

18% of all cropland

21% of landfill space

By weight, 16% of this loss happens on the farm, or 10 million tons of produce alone.

Having growers measure and quantity these numbers themselves helps put things in perspective and reduce this issue, Prezkop explained. Growers were a part of the SISC pilots, and their data helped coordinate the metrics. The calculator does utilize some of the data farmers are already recording to help determine the overall loss.

I highly recommend exploring the SISC Stewardship Calculator yourself, I think it will be a big one to watch going forward. Even if it’s a far cry from that mythical silver bullet to resolving food waste, it at least cuts down on what falls through the cracks on the farm.

So, there’s just a brief snippet of some ideas I walked away with from this year’s Summit, especially in light of a pandemic. There was such a variety of sessions, companies and speakers there’s something of interest for everyone regardless of your role in ag to walk away from. I highly encourage checking this one out for 2021! (Hopefully in person).

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