Supply chain transparency is an increasing expectation in the sustainability conversation, but so are producers’ perspectives.

June 18 2024 01:36 PM

Consumer choices are unpredictable and complex. They are often made based on emotional subjectivity rather than scientific information, which is why, as agricultural producers, it can be daunting to approach the topic of sustainability.

Americans’ growing concern with where their food comes from is a good thing — it promotes healthy habits and usually means more attention paid to farmers’ livelihoods. The more consumers care about what they’re eating, the more credit is given where it’s due. However, this also means there are growing expectations not only for supply and production transparency, but also for the way in which those supplies are acquired and/or compensated for (for example, conducting audits to ensure a company’s labor force is lawfully regulated).

Put another way, there is now a critical eye directed at agriculture’s sustainability efforts. What a wonderful challenge to rise to, given that this industry has already been addressing sustainability for years, but what multifarious questions and complexities the fixation brings along with it.

“We don’t wonder where our electricity came from when we flip a switch in our living room, but we very well might wonder where a carton of eggs came from at the grocery store,” said Kimberly Stackhouse-Lawson of Colorado State University on the GPS Dairy Cast podcast.

While only generally true, this analogy speaks to the broader question at work; that is, the question of why food is such a unique resource (and why agriculture is so scrutinized for the production of food).

It’s complicated

Food is distinct in the nature of its tie to our emotional responses and to memory. We might shop for specific ingredients because our grandmother used them in her signature lasagna or reach for comfort food to unwind after a mentally taxing day. These kinds of choices don’t exist in the electricity, gas, or water world, where an energy source is only as desirable as its use, such as lights, heat, and plumbing. Agriculture operates under the same umbrella as other industrial ventures, but it has a distinct set of additional expectations. Therefore, sustainability solutions within this field are not cut and dry.

Companies and corporations are expected to thoroughly address all three “pillars” of sustainability in their reporting. Those three pillars are social, economic, and environmental, with social and economic being the most overlooked in a “sustainable” framework.

With pressure from the government and the public to reduce ag’s contribution to greenhouse gases (most notably, via efforts to mitigate methane emissions), it can seem like all that’s talked about in today’s discourse is climate. However, businesses that show a well-rounded approach in all three pillars are more likely to receive outside investments from ESG investors (a type of investing concerned with a company’s environmental, social, and corporate governance values) than those who focus on environmental sustainability alone.

Still, what does well-rounded, sustainable agriculture actually look like, and to what extent are farmers expected to invest in changes?

“Radical transparency is coming,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “It will not just be a part of the future; it will be an expectation.” Reporting requirements have evolved from including what a company can control within its own walls (its scope of operations) to including details of every step along the supply chain (data traceability from supplier, to producer, to distribution, to retail).

To rise to these burgeoning expectations, farms will need to meet or, at the very least, support all three sustainability pillars, which requires extensive data collection and new technologies — both of which can be expensive. Stackhouse-Lawson emphasized the importance of being open with policymakers and food retailers about what the challenges are when navigating this as a supplier or producer.

“Let them know what you need to know about expectations and solutions before you invest in making changes,” she said. “Come to the table with a specific ask.” This will make it easier on those applying pressure and on those whose operations are directly affected.

Action and reaction

Producers are more a part of the dialogue than ever. Who better to say how systems research and nutrient productivity are best approached than those who are on the farm doing the work? There’s always been incentive to be more efficient and produce less waste — it’s an inherent part of farming — but now there is the added incentive of being able to shape the narrative about sustainable agriculture from the top down. If anything, this opportunity to be at the table, to let farmer expertise have a say at every level where changes are being introduced, is motivation itself to conduct efficiency reports. Innovation is not the enemy, but the foundation, of land positivism. Producers are far from powerless; they are a key component to the conversation.

“We have already reduced the footprint of milk. Even if greenhouse gases have gone up, we’re producing more milk, so that footprint is going down from a resource-use-efficiency perspective,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “We can keep doing what we’re doing and still look for what there is yet to discover.”

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on pages 10-11. Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.