Selected category: Food

Farmers and environmentalists want the same thing

I’m spending time on this year’s National Ag Day thinking back gratefully to a recent meeting I had with farmers.

I was attending the annual farm exchange program offered through the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, which facilitates learning opportunities on California farms. This year’s program brought together state environmental policy professionals and growers from the Central Coast, an epicenter for growing the nation’s specialty crops, such as lettuce, broccoli, and strawberries. My aim was “to see sustainability through the eyes of farmers.” We toured various agricultural operations, had thoughtful discussions, and stayed with host families in the local farm community.

My host was Erin Amaral, who manages 1,170 acres of vineyards near San Luis Obispo. Erin and I got along immediately – and our conversations kept coming back to one central tenet: farmers and environmentalists want the same things. Read More »

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Farmers' voices are essential to figuring out sustainability. Let's listen up.

The corn and soybean fields that stretch for miles across the Midwest are quiet this time of year, mostly frozen surfaces waiting for the spring planting season.

Although many farmers are not in the field dawn to dusk during the winter, they are still plenty busy. Between planning for the next season, taking care of animals and attending countless meetings, farmers are seldom idle even if their crop fields are.

But lucky for us, winter does afford more time to talk.

One friend from Iowa who works hard to use fertilizer efficiently to avoid runoff and optimize plant uptake of nutrients said he worries that food companies don’t always recognize the sustainability efforts of mainstream farmers. Too often, he said, it seems food companies look for simple labels like organic.

A soybean grower I know from Ohio who has invested a lot of time learning farming practices that will help restore nearby Lake Erie told me it is a constant struggle to balance making a living with repairing decades of agricultural nutrient runoff that have imperiled the health of the lake. Read More »

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The year the private sector stepped up for land, water and wildlife

By this time next year, I believe we’ll reflect back on 2017 as the year that the private sector stepped up to protect our land, water and wildlife for future generations.

I believe this because major retailers, food companies, agricultural businesses and farmers laid the groundwork in 2016, making sizeable commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), improve water quality and conserve habitat for imperiled wildlife.

President-elect Trump has made political theater by threatening to kill the regulations that protect our nation’s air and water. But in the real world, the private sector is going the other direction.

Forward-thinking businesses are rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to make those regulations work better by accelerating the uptake of practices that are good for the planet and the bottom line.

These are three areas to watch in 2017.

Read More »

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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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What was left off the menu at the WSJ Global Food Forum?

jenny-ahlen-croppedMany of us spend a considerable amount of time thinking about food – whether it’s deciding what’s for dinner or how healthy something is for our family. Given that I work on food sustainability and am married to a chef, I spend an even more extreme amount of time thinking about food.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal hosted the first annual Global Food Forum in New York City – more proof that food and agricultural issues are increasingly on the radar screens of many executives, including those from Walmart, Campbell’s Soup, Panera, Perdue, Monsanto and many more.

I was eager to attend the event and hear the discussions among some of the most powerful food companies out there. They covered many topics including food safety, “clean” labels, biotechnology, antibiotic use and the humane treatment of animals.

All important stuff – but given the prestige of the event, I’d like to bring up the elephant in the room (or more accurately the elephant not in the room): sustainability. The environmental impacts of agriculture were barely touched upon, and considering the corporate heavyweights who were in the room, this was a missed opportunity on a massive scale. Read More »

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What Michael Pollan gets wrong about Big Ag

Journalist Michael Pollan deserves credit for elevating the national conversation about food. Over the course of 25 years, his articles and books have thoughtfully contemplated the troubling side effects of the American diet and the way our food is produced.

But his latest piece in the New York Times Magazine reads like a script for a black and white Western, with food companies, agribusiness and commodity producers cast in the role of Bad Guy and local organic farmers and vegans cast as the Men in White Hats.

In Pollan’s script, the bad guys are responsible for everything from America’s weight problem and rising health care costs to widespread environmental degradation and monocultures that threaten national security. If only the law would get on the good guys’ side, he muses.

Food production is actually changing

All industries have issues that continually need to be addressed, and the food industry is no exception.

Agriculture consumes a lot of land and water and emits greenhouse gas emissions that must be curbed. And, yes, our diets have contributed to America’s obesity epidemic.

Except, our food system is changing, more than Pollan acknowledges.

The uptick in consumer demand for local, organic products is promising. So, too, are the contributions that Pollan’s so-called villains – the companies, agribusinesses and commodity farmers who produce what’s on our plate – are making to the environment. They deserve recognition. Read More »

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These heartland conservation heroes defy stereotypes

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Western ranchers, Midwestern commodity crop growers, fishermen who make their livelihoods along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. In some circles, these folks wouldn’t necessarily be considered models of sustainability. And yet, many are leading a quiet revolution in the way our food is raised, harvested and produced.

In her new book Rancher Farmer Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the Heartland, my colleague Miriam Horn journeys down the Mighty Mississippi River System to meet five representatives of this unsung stewardship movement: Read More »

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A coalition of uncommon bedfellows is bringing sustainable agriculture to scale

160526_0265Today represents a huge advancement for sustainable agriculture, and a new era of food company collaboration. At the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, we are officially launching the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC): a diverse coalition working to expand on-the-ground solutions to protect air and water quality, enhance soil health, and maintain high yields throughout the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

Founding members of the MRCC include Cargill, Environmental Defense Fund, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Monsanto, PepsiCo, The Nature Conservancy, Walmart, and World Wildlife Fund. The coalition will work directly with growers to help foster continuous improvement and implement conservation activities across three pilot states responsible for 44 percent of corn, soy, and wheat production in the United States: Illinois, Nebraska, and Iowa.   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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Why two California farms give me hope for the monarch butterfly

A monarch caterpillar eats showy milkweed at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California.

A monarch caterpillar eats showy milkweed at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California.

The western population of monarch butterflies is in steep decline, according to a recent study released by the Xerces Society, having fallen 74 percent in the past two decades, from roughly 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 300,000 butterflies in 2015.

Studies have documented the drop in eastern populations over the past several years, but this is the first time we've been able to understand the risks to the western population, which resides west of the Rocky Mountains.

The population is struggling because of development around the forested groves where they spend winters along the California coast and in Mexico, and because of pesticide applications that kill vital milkweed habitat. These threats and the population decline are significant, having the potential to influence a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision in coming years if the situation fails to turn around soon.

I’ve feared for many years that the monarch might reach the point that it will require protections under the Endangered Species Act – a last resort that signals a dire state for the iconic and beloved species. But a recent trip to California gave me great hope that it’s not too late to change the monarch’s trajectory.  Read More »

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