Author Archives: Maggie Monast

How Smithfield’s landmark climate goal benefits farmers and the planet

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork company, is known as a leader in animal agriculture. Now Smithfield is showing its sustainability leadership by becoming the first major livestock company to make an absolute, supply chain commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change.

The company will reduce emissions in its U.S. supply chain, from feed grain to packaged bacon, 25 percent by 2025. To meet the goal, Smithfield will improve fertilizer use on feed grain, install advanced manure management technologies, and increase energy efficiency in transportation.

When a company as big as Smithfield makes a new sustainability commitment, it’s natural for farmers and neighboring communities to wonder how it will affect them. The good news is that all the actions Smithfield plans will generate benefits both for farmers and our environment.

Here are three: Read More »

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Why sustainable food can’t be a luxury

Photo credit: Don Graham

Photo credit: Don Graham

The results are in, so food companies take notice: American consumers are educating themselves on our food system, and they’re increasingly asking for sustainably produced foods. That’s a key takeaway from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s new report on consumer attitudes toward food.

It's an exciting trend, since what we buy sends a signal across the supply chain for farmers to grow ingredients in ways that protect our natural resources, and for food companies to source sustainably grown products. Sustainably produced food also supports food security, which is essential to our continued prosperity.

Yet sustainably grown products are almost always more expensive to produce than their unsustainable counterparts, which is why many farmers require a premium for changing their production practices to reduce environmental impacts.

To improve air and water quality and protect farmers’ livelihoods, sustainability can’t just be a luxury. Sustainable food production has to become business as usual.

Here’s why we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.

Read More »

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Controlled drainage is the new black

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

NC State University’s agriculture water management expert Mohamed Youssef, Ph.D, believes the time is ripe for controlled drainage to make a comeback.

Controlled drainage is one of the most effective ways to minimize nitrogen loss from croplands. It’s a management practice involving the use of a control structure installed at the outlet of a drainage ditch or subsurface drain to regulate drainage water outflow according to plant needs and field operations.

“A controlled drainage system can remove between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen present in runoff, if used at a large scale. These systems hold huge potential to reduce pollution from very large flows of water runoff,” Youssef explained during my recent visit to NC State’s demonstration farms in eastern North Carolina.

Despite the promise, adoption rates for this practice remain very low, in part because of functionality problems with the first controlled drainage structures. But thanks to new advances in the technology that I recently viewed in the field, adoption rates are rising.

Like any filter practice, controlled drainage is just one tool that can help solve regional water quality problems. It’s not a silver bullet, especially with some geographic limitations since they can be used only on low-sloping fields. While there is no perfect solution to stop farm runoff, after seeing drainage systems first-hand, I too believe we’re nearing a tipping point for widespread adoption of controlled drainage in agriculture – and big environmental benefits. Here’s the story. Read More »

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3 ways NGOs can help sustainable supply chains grow

mb video shot (2)Earlier this week, a former sustainability executive with McDonald’s delivered a wake-up call for environmental groups, listing “5 ways that NGOs stunt sustainability.” In this article, Bob Langert explains the ways that nonprofits are failing to help companies turn sustainability commitments into on-the-ground results. In the context of sustainable palm oil, he notes:

“You can’t just go after big brands and expect them to manage a supply chain that has them seven stages removed, starting with the smallholders, to mills, then plantations, to storage facilities, refineries, ingredient manufacturers and then product manufacturers, then into a final product a retailer sells, such as ice cream, a granola bar or shampoo — with palm as a minute ingredient.”

He’s right – sustainability in supply chains, especially in agriculture, is incredibly complex. So how can environmental groups effectively champion sustainability progress throughout global supply chains, from the C-suite to crop fields?  Here are three ideas. Read More »

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Unlocking the black box of agricultural supply chains

Schmitt - Head Shot

Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative at the University of Minnesota.

The corn supply chain is a complex, ever-changing, and often unpredictable system. Measuring the environmental impacts of grain production can be just as complex and daunting – especially with thousands of players involved.

Understanding corn’s environmental footprint is fundamental to generating solutions that help farmers improve efficiencies and reduce fertilizer losses and hold companies accountable for meeting and measuring the success of their sustainability goals.

That’s why EDF partnered with the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise to develop a feed grain transport model that estimates emissions from grain farming. Northstar is a program within the university’s Institute on the Environment, which has deep expertise in the complex agricultural supply chain and is able to connect the dots between products on the shelves and their environmental impacts. As I’ve blogged before, EDF believes this kind of increased transparency is good for consumers and businesses themselves.

I asked Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative, to elaborate on the team's research and on the importance of data collection and measurement in agriculture.
Read More »

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USDA gives big boost to sustainable farming in North Carolina

mb video shot (2)Environmental Defense Fund’s efforts to improve sustainable farming practices through the grain supply chain received another boost, thanks to a USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant of $500,000 in North Carolina.

The award supports EDF’s collaboration with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, and brings in university and grower organization partners. In 2014, Smithfield’s hog production division made a commitment to engage 75 percent of its grain sourcing acres, or about half a million acres, in sustainable farming practices by 2018. These practices reduce fertilizer losses to the water and air, thereby improving water quality and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2015, through a sustainability program called MBGro, Smithfield helped farmers plant cover crops, use efficient nitrogen sensors, and employ other conservation practices on nearly 100,000 acres in the Southeast. Earlier this year, the company announced the expansion of its sustainable grain program to its Midwest sourcing region with ag retailer United Suppliers.

And now, the RCPP project officially kicks off this week – and will directly engage producers to expand conservation practices in agriculture. Here’s what it entails. Read More »

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Animal feed is at the heart of grain sustainability

monast tractor

Building my energy-efficient home in North Carolina.

My passion for improving the food system for the health of my family, my fellow citizens and our planet is in my genes.

My grandmother ran a natural foods business out of her kitchen in the 1950s, a time when the country was moving towards more processed food. My parents, who took me on annual Earth Day trash walks to pick up garbage alongside the road by our house, instilled in me a deep respect for the environment. My mother, a teacher, also started a composting and gardening program at her school that incorporates what the students grow into the school menus.

I draw on my family’s heritage in my life and work. That’s why I’m proud to be part of the team that helped Smithfield Foods establish and deploy a program to improve the sustainability of the grains they feed their hogs.

EDF and Smithfield don’t agree on everything, but we do agree that farmers growing animal feed have an important role to play in reducing the climate and water impacts of agriculture.

Here’s why a career focused on feed grain sustainability is a perfect fit for me – and why I believe that momentum in animal feed sustainability is a great way for protein companies across the supply chain to make tangible improvements to air and water quality. Read More »

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Meet the young Smithfield agronomist who’s turning the feed grain industry on its head

EDF's Katie Anderson (left), Rachel Carr (center), and EDF's Maggie Monast (right) explore how Smithfield can use SUSTAIN in their Midwest sourcing areas.

EDF's Katie Anderson (left), Rachel Carr (center), and EDF's Maggie Monast (right) explore how Smithfield can use SUSTAIN in the company's Midwest sourcing areas.

Forty million acres of U.S. land are dedicated to growing corn for animal feed. That’s roughly the land equivalent of the state of Florida. As the global demand for meat swells, so does the demand for feed grains.

Growing this corn requires a lot of fertilizer, yet up to 50 percent of fertilizer applied is lost, leading to air and water pollution as well as high costs for farmers.

MBGro, an innovative sustainability program developed by Smithfield Foods' Hog Production Division, is helping solve this problem. MBGro offers free agronomic consultation to farmers, with a goal of keeping more nitrogen in fields and out of waterways, while maximizing profits along the way.

As a story in today's Farm Journal noted, “Smithfield … hopes 75% of its grain sourcing acreage in the Southeast and Midwest will participate in [MBGro] by 2018.”

At the heart of MBGro is 25-year old agronomist Rachel Carr. I asked Rachel to tell me about her passion for sustainable agriculture, why she believes MBGro is a model for other protein companies, and about how cover crops played a role in her recent engagement. Read More »

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5 steps to move food production from transparency to sustainability

Credit: Flickr user Brian Talbot

Credit: Flickr user Brian Talbot

A new survey from the Center for Food Integrity suggests that transparency is no longer optional for food companies. Consumers want to know what’s in their food, where it’s from, and how its production helps or harms the planet.

“Consumers increasingly expect their favorite brands to assure more than quality and safety,” said the center’s CEO, Charlie Arnot. “They now expect those brands to assure the supply chain is also transparent.”

Transparency will bring companies’ environmental impacts to light– which can then motivate improvement. But it doesn’t guarantee sustainability – especially when it comes to agriculture. That’s because it’s up to food companies themselves to do the heavy lifting – to address the actual environmental impacts of food production.

For food companies to reach their sustainability goals, transparency is often just the first step. Here’s what follows. Read More »

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3 reasons food companies should track emissions from their supply chains

Credit: Flickr user

Few professions require as close attention to the weather as farming. Extreme temperatures, floods, drought, and storms are the quickest way for a promising crop to turn into a total loss. That’s why it is surprising that a new report from the environmental data organization CDP shows food companies largely ignore their agricultural supply chains when making climate commitments. Less than 25 percent of the companies reporting greenhouse gas (GHG) data are accounting for indirect emissions from fertilizer, manure, or deforestation.

There are various reasons why so few food companies extend climate commitments to their full supply chains – global supply chains are complex and it can be difficult to trace product components back to their origins.

But failure to account for agricultural emissions is problematic. As the CDP report noted, at least 10 percent of global GHG emissions are unaccounted for, meaning food companies are lacking important insight into climate risks in their supply chains.

Here are three reasons why food companies should invest the time and energy required to take this step: Read More »

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