Three Toolboxes: Corporate Sustainable Agriculture Programs

A cartoon of a tractor with people on it.

Hal Hamilton and Elizabeth Reaves

Twenty years ago, food company attention to sustainability added up to assigning one or two people to figure out what to do, but by now, investments from leading companies add up to millions, and in a few cases, billions of dollars. We’ve all learned and accomplished a lot, and, although despite triumphalist annual sustainability reports, we are also just beginning.

A cartoon of a man sitting on a rock with a sign that says halfway point.

To achieve agricultural sustainability and resilience, one way to frame best practice for food companies is by focusing on three toolboxes:

  1. Technical innovations,
  2. Farmer support, and
  3. Collaborative market shaping.

All three toolboxes are necessary. Market shaping is the most exploratory. We describe all three below, with examples primarily drawn from our work, not because we want to toot our own horn, but rather because that is the work with which we are most familiar, even though we accomplish little on our own without our many partners and peers.

Technical Innovations

Every sustainability or procurement officer in food companies is deluged with pitches for investing in low-emissions fertilizer, plant breeding, feed additives, and a dazzling array of measurement tools.

Farmers themselves have ever more data collection possibilities, including from their tractors and combines, than they ever have time to take advantage of (or money to pay for).

For both companies and farmers, many of these new tools enable better management, from which everyone benefits. Luckily farmers and company executives are learning to compare notes with peers, share the results of what they’re trying, and make informed choices.

When Sustainable Food Lab supported the design and launch of the Cool Soil Initiative in Australia, which now reaches about a million acres, the farming groups we work with suddenly found themselves inundated with hard sells for inhibitors, biologicals, and seed inoculants that could reduce emissions and increase soil carbon. Instead of just turning these innovations away or giving them the green light, we invited growers to invest in on-farm trials. Farmers were paid to test the products using a rigorous research design. As a result, for example, we learned with farmers that there were some advantages to nitrogen inhibitors that nobody had thought of, and some tweaks to how to place them to get a decent return on investment. Now we can share those successes in a credible way that is most likely to lead to innovation rather than wasting money or trust.

Along with on-farm technologies, we’ve also supported companies to develop shared principles for the use of data to report impacts. Reporting guidelines help shape contracts, which for some commodities form the backbone of transition to more regenerative farming systems.

Farmer Support

In the US our partnership with Practical Farmers of Iowa and work with PepsiCo generated a 3-legged stool to frame what farmers need for transition, each leg of which is important: financial, technical, and cultural.

A stool with the words market and culture of government farmer incentives capable agronomic advice.

We and our company partners have had opportunities to assess different forms of financial incentives for farmers as we’ve helped design and manage dozens of projects, trying out cost-plus contracts, price premiums, cost-sharing of new practices, and ecosystem service markets.

We also facilitate a learning community of farmer learning networks that provide agronomic help for farmers. One of our partnerships began with Abby Wick, a charismatic soil scientist who was at North Dakota State University. After supporting individual farmers for years, Abby had an insight from working with crop advisors: wouldn’t she be able to help more farmers by engaging already trusted farmer advisors to share learning about soil biology and conservation practices? We then helped her find corporate partners and raise money. By now she’s changed jobs, but the network of crop advisors is growing, each of whom is working with dozens of farmers on annual cropping plans, and that process is now spreading to other states.

Farming communities are built on relationships, and when companies show up for crop advisors whom farmers already trust, a long supply chain can feel almost local. This cultural part of the farmer support toolbox is crucial. None of us wants outsiders to tell us what to do.

Collaborative Market Shaping

Market shaping is the newest toolbox in this field of work, drawing from global successes of coalitions of pharmaceutical companies, large philanthropies, and the public sector to address public health challenges such as HIV-AIDS and COVID. As with public health, markets for EV transport and renewable energy are industry examples of beginning with a few innovative companies and expanding to large partnerships.

Sometimes existing product markets shift dramatically without public support. Nokia shipped 463 million phones in 2007, but by 2013 only 4.4 million. Apple and Samsung came along and generated value from products that included many other functions, and Nokia lost most of their market position. What if we thought about farming in the same way, not only as a producer of food ingredients but also clean water, biodiversity, and healthy rural communities? Few of these characteristics of landscapes seem material to food companies until we ask: “How can we generate the most value, over the long-term?” Framed that way, with both resilient productivity and corporate citizenship in mind, the potential for market shaping partnerships becomes more material.

As food companies expand focus from products to a wider array of values, some for individuals and some for everyone, speeches at COPs and at Davos will become more authentic.

There will always be winners and losers in competitive markets, and consumers will always choose products that give them pleasure or the ability to do something. But robust value-creation of public as well as private goods could be a game-changer for whole industries. According to the brilliant book SMASH by Finnish scientists Nenonen and Storbacka, market-shaping requires networks of players to aggregate finance, standardize measurement, and quantify expected wins for each player. Partners in market shaping might even include competitors, and each partner plays to their specific strengths, more like a jazz band than an orchestra.

In agriculture, one example of collective innovation to create more value would be the creation of infrastructure and markets for plants or livestock that improve the performance of major cropping regions around the world. All these regions are dominated by too-few crops, leaving the soil bare between seasons. Regenerative agriculture requires diverse living roots in the soil, and cover over the soil. Most farmers can’t achieve this by themselves. They need markets and infrastructure for more crops.

For example, in the US Midwest, the benefits of cover crops and diversification include reduced use of fertilizer, decreased greenhouse gas emissions, and improved water quality. Unfortunately, that won’t happen without a major shift in the enabling conditions within which farmers make individual decisions. Farmers can’t dramatically shift to year-round planting without cover crop seed supply and markets for oats and other small grains, along with distribution networks of elevators, grain bins, rail cars, and processing facilities. We also need the technical sophistication to identify the best crops or livestock enterprises for each region’s climate and soils, product innovation and animal feed reformulation, farmer support systems to enable the transition, and the commercial arrangements that create wins for all the necessary market players.

Transitions in markets and infrastructure are possible. One body of evidence lies in collective impact initiatives: with common metrics and a coordinating backbone organization, the partners in an initiative can contribute uniquely, and all benefit in ways they could never accomplish by themselves.

A cartoon of a tractor with people on it.

As with any complex social challenge, transition depends upon system leadership: the capabilities to knit together different players with divergent as well as convergent interests.

Alignment of players inside businesses is probably even more crucial than alignment within external networks. System leaders in each organization learn to bridge from the sustainability team to senior executives in other functions, particularly procurement and finance. Along the way, listening is more important than convincing, searching for both immediate overlapping goals and longer-term shared aspirations. [Here is a guide we created in our Scale Lab for engaging across functions.]

The ultimate beneficiaries, of course, are everyone, and each of the three toolboxes improves with use and learning.

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