Opinion: To Move Our Planet Forward, Food and Agriculture Must Think About Sustainability Differently

Editor's Note: Land O'Lakes, Inc., is a founding Planet Forward sponsor. CEO Chris Policinski attended the 2018 Planet Forward Summit and offers in the commentary below his take on what we need to move the planet forward.

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In many ways, the sustainability story of the American farmer mirrors that of every other American. Farmers genuinely care about doing their part to protect our planet, for all the same reasons as anyone else. They want to leave behind a world that’s just a little bit better than how they found it.

This is the refrain we hear again and again from the agricultural community at every meeting, conference, hearing and media appearance. While it’s a worthy sentiment, I believe it’s time to update our message to reflect the changing reality of our industry.

Recently, I spoke at George Washington University’s Planet Forward Summit, an event focused on effective communication and compelling sustainability storytelling. I was pleased that the organizers included not only myself, but Nebraska farmer Roric Paulman, to share sustainability stories from the agricultural perspective.

Sustainability Story Panel 2018 Summit
The "What's Your Sustainability Story?" panel at the 2018 Planet Forward Summit featured Nebraska farmer Roric Paulman, far right. Also on stage, from left, are Frank Sesno, Beth Stewart, Chris Policinski and Dr. Felecia Nave.

My message is simple: To move our planet forward, farmers must lead the charge. But they can’t do it alone.

Coordinated action on sustainability across the food supply chain is the only way to achieve lasting progress. The rest of the food supply chain can and should do more to support farmers. And that starts with expanding how we talk about sustainability.

Here’s why: More than any other person, organization, company or government agency, American farmers have daily and near-constant contact with the land. Every day, American farmers make conservation decisions that impact 915 million U.S. acres – nearly half of the land in the continental United States.

We’ve all heard the statistic that we’ll need to feed 9 billion people by 2050, and that harsher drought, severe weather, and more pests will make this increasingly difficult. We sometimes fall into the trap of talking about these challenges as though they’re a generation away. But for farmers, they are happening right now.

That’s why it’s time to start thinking and talking about sustainability differently. In order to achieve lasting progress, we must connect big-ticket goals – the increasingly common company commitments to slashing emissions and saving kilowatt hours of energy – to the daily reality of what farmers face, acre-by-acre and field-by-field.

That’s why Land O’Lakes has made a major investment in this idea of farmer-owned and -driven sustainability – including, but not limited to, standing up our Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN business unit.

As a farmer-owned cooperative, we exist to add value for our member-owners. The thousands of farmers who own us recognize the value of sustainability and are invested in its future.

As a Fortune 200 CPG company, we have the connections and the credibility to rally the energy and scale of the entire food supply chain around farmer-driven sustainability – including farmers, marketers, ag retailers, non-governmental organizations, food companies, government, and consumers.

Our products are staples in grocery stores across America, and we do business in many other nations around the world. Every move our farmer members make to improve sustainability on their farms has a positive ripple effect down the entire supply chain.

Through our farmer-owned approach, we are unlocking the greatest potential from farm-to-fork, using our network to deliver precision conservation tools, data and services to farmers, and rooting it all in our expertise and 96-year heritage as a farmer-owned cooperative.

A great example of this is the work that we are doing with Walmart. Land O’Lakes was one of the first suppliers to join Project Gigaton, Walmart’s goal to remove 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from its supply chain by 2030. As part of this effort, we have committed to assessing all of our milk supply for emissions and working with farmers across 20 million acres to improve fertilizer optimization, soil health and water management.

Bringing together big-picture, company-level sustainability commitments and the acre-by-acre conservation efforts of farmers makes both more effective. It engages farmers in advancing conservation solutions across millions of acres of farmland in a more coordinated way. It allows us to collect and then translate data that not only helps farmers continuously improve their stewardship, but also helps consumers access clear information about how their food was produced.

Coordinated action on sustainability across the food supply chain that puts farmers in the drivers’ seat is the only way to achieve lasting progress on the sustainability challenges we face as an industry and as a country. It is the best way to move our planet forward, together.

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This op-ed originally was published on Agri-Pulse. Published with permission.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.