The Right Path

Soybean farmers encouraged to follow specific practices to meet demand for sustainability and boost exports.

Sustainability is applied to all products in the value chain, Image by United Soybean Board

Nancy Kavazanjian has traveled extensively around the world promoting U.S. soybeans. The Wisconsin farmer is a United Soybean Board (USB) director and former chairperson for U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). She farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Dodge County with her husband, Charlie Hammer. She has learned valuable lessons and insights talking to our soybean customers. Her advice? “If U.S. agriculture wants a competitive advantage over other international exporters, we need to embrace sustainability.”

Kavazanjian points to sustainability as a major differentiation point between U.S. soybeans and other global exporters, such as South America. “More and more, consumers are telling us they want sustainably grown food,” she says. “U.S. farmers already have practices and government laws in place for conservation, labor, etc., which give us an advantage. What’s needed is a system that our international customers can use to show sustainability to their customers, and we have that through the U.S. Soybean Export Council [USSEC].”

PROPER PROTOCOL. Exporter demand for sustainably grown products was the impetus behind the U.S. Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol [SSAP]. Established through checkoff dollars and the cooperation of USB, USSEC and others in the soy value chain, the protocol uses an aggregate approach to quantifying metrics for production practices used by U.S. growers.

That approach ensures U.S. soybean exports are sustainably produced through three audit procedures:

1) More than 95% of U.S. soybean growers participate in the U.S. Farm Program, making them subject to audit;

2) An annual internal audit is performed by producers;

3) Independent third-party audits are conducted annually by USDA agents in more than 2,200 offices across the country. (Individual farms do not require certification.)

U.S. Soy Verification certificates are issued to international buyers for batches of compliant soybeans and soy products at point of export. International organizations, such as The European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation and Best Aquaculture Practices, have embraced the program to certify the sustainability of U.S. soy to their customers.

“Many people don’t realize that more than 50% of U.S. soybeans are exported,” Kavazanjian says. “Sustainability certification for international buyers impacts everything we do in the U.S.”

In the 2016–2017 marketing year, the U.S. shipped more than 11 million metric tons of verified sustainable soybeans, she adds. “That’s more than two times as much as we projected for the sale of sustainable products,” and represents nearly 19% of total U.S. soybean exports.

To emphasize how quickly interest in sustainably grown products is growing, Kavazanjian tells a story about a USB/USSEC experience with Japanese soy customers. Japan buys a significant number of high-value soybeans, such as tofu beans and identity-preserved beans. Some two years ago, a group of USB members met with a soybean oil processor and soy crush manufacturers. “We told them about U.S. sustainability efforts, and they weren’t interested,” Kavazanjian recalls.

Fast-forward to August 2017, and the group meets again with the Japanese customers. “This time, they were highly interested in sustainability and getting verification certificates to assure their industry that soybeans sourced from the U.S. were sustainable,” she says.

What changed? “Japan is hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, and the Olympics committee wants all food served in the venues and Olympics Village sustainably sourced--soy oil for french fries, salad dressing and other foods,” she says. “Suddenly, it’s wonderful that we have the SSAP sustainability protocol and verification in place.”

CONNECTING WITH CONSUMERS. Illinois Soybean Association board member and farmer Doug Schroeder echoes similar sustainability sensibilities. “To me, the definition of sustainability is trying to get more done with less and following a path of continuous improvement.”

Schroeder, who grows 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Champaign County, says, “There’s no reason not to be sustainable. Consumers are our end users, and it would be ludicrous to not address their needs,” he says.

“It’s a win-win for end users who want a sustainably grown meal on their plate every day and for farmers who want to increase profits by doing more with less input.”

He notes 60% of Illinois soybeans are exported internationally, particularly to Southeast Asia. During an association trip to Manila, Philippines, the increasing demand for sustainably sourced food really hit home for Schroeder.

“Our local guide picked up a pork product and scanned the QR code on the back of the package. It showed a photo of the farmer who raised the pork going into their supermarkets,” he says. “There was not only proof of a sustainably raised product but also traceability to the individual farm. Our soybean group raises the feedstuff that goes into those hogs, and we would like our photos on that label, too.”

He adds, “Even though I wasn’t directly involved, it made me feel more connected to the end consumer than I’ve ever felt. Consumers really care about what I’m doing. Most days, I’m on a farm where I look out my window, and I can’t see another house or farmstead. Yet, halfway around the world, people care that I’m raising my crops sustainably and doing things right.”

In Illinois, where nitrate runoff poses a challenge, Schroeder does his part to prevent the problem. “We use in-season nitrogen application and put it on right when the plant needs the nutrients,” Schroeder says. “The industry norm used to be 1.2 pounds per acre. Now, we apply only .9 pounds per acre.

“That’s a home run for the seed companies who buy my seed corn,” he says. “Their corporate managers need to make sure the seed corn they purchase is grown sustainably.”

Schroeder adds, “U.S. soybean products produced under the SSAP gives us an advantage over other countries exporting soybeans, such as Brazil and Argentina. “It means more demand for my soybeans and, thus, a higher price.”

COMPANIES AND SUSTAINABLE SOURCING. Food companies are also embracing sustainable sourcing across their value chain. “Sustainability is an opportunity and a challenge for all of us. Consumer values have changed dramatically in the past five years and continue to evolve,” says Catherine Gunsbury, General Mills director, sustainability and transparency.

To meet consumer demand and build a resilient supply chain, General Mills is focused on two key areas: sustainable sourcing and climate. “We’re committed to sustainably sourcing 100% of our Top 10 priority ingredients by 2020--cocoa, vanilla, oats, U.S. wheat, U.S. sugar beets, U.S. dry milled corn, U.S. dairy, fiber packaging, sugarcane and palm oil,” Gunsbury says.

Regarding the environment, General Mills made a commitment two years ago to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an absolute 28% across its entire value chain by 2025, she adds.

Gunsbury notes both commitments are “hugely dependent upon our ability to partner across our value chain.” To that end, the food company works with suppliers, growers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). For example, when supporting soil health, General Mills works with The Nature Conservancy, the Soil Health Institute, the National Corn Growers Association Soil Health Partnership and the National Association of Wheat Growers. Water stewardship in key watersheds is another focus area for the company.

In some cases, General Mills pays incentives based on the specific ingredient supply chain. “We work with companies who can recruit farmers who are continually pursuing more sustainable practices. Because we seek the highest-quality ingredients for our products, sustainable agriculture practices are increasingly part of the overall quality definition for food ingredients,” Gunsbury says.

“We’re all on this food business and sustainability path together; we just own different parts of it. Much of it boils down to problem-solving and innovation--farmers are good at that.”

Food giant Unilever also practices sustainable sourcing through its Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC), which defines sourcing based upon 11 social economic and environmental indicators. These range from soil health to biodiversity to animal welfare.

Unilever works with its suppliers to help them comply with the company’s SAC and commit to continuous improvement, says Stefani Grant, senior manager, state external affairs and sustainability. For example, suppliers can comply through self-assessment and verification, or through external certifications that meet or exceed our standards. For commodity crops, Unilever works with the Field to Market alliance.

In 2013, Unilever established a farm-level initiative for sustainable sourcing focused on soybean oil used in Hellmann’s mayonnaise. “During the program, farmers provided feedback showing an interest in cover crops. We used the feedback and farmer dialogue to set up a cover-crop cost-share pilot,” Grant says. Since its inception in 2013, the pilot touched more than 160 U.S. farmers who planted 25,000 acres of cover crops.

Given the success of the pilot, Unilever will launch a cover-crop cost-share program for all farmers enrolled in the Hellmann’s sustainable soy program. Farmers who enroll receive a $10-per-acre cost-share for planting new cover crops up to 10% of their total farmed acres, Grant explains.

“Looking beyond food to table, we have a sustainable nutrition strategy that’s a road map for action on the United Nations goals for sustainable development,” she continues. “People are at the core. For Unilever, this means producing safe, high-quality, nutritious food with respect for the environment and less waste.”

In Food We Trust?

“Agriculture needs a clear understanding of what food companies are looking for in the quest for sustainably sourced food,” says Brad Greenway, chairman for the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). “We need to address two key questions: Does food production need to be organic or non-GMO to be sustainable, and what can agriculture do to be more sustainable?”

To learn the best way to communicate answers, USFRA commissioned an industrywide sustainability report.

USFRA targeted retailers, restaurants and food manufacturers to help them understand what’s already occurring on the farm to ensure sustainability, Greenway says. “We went through animal production species by species and grain commodities crop by crop to help people understand that farmers are already well down the path to sustainably grown food.”

The research showed “consumers feel they know and trust farmers, but they don’t feel like they know and trust their farming practices,” Greenway says. “Closing that gap needs to occur.”

He notes food companies are sourcing grain and livestock products raised in a specific manner to ensure sustainably produced raw materials.

For example, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) SmartLabel initiative puts specific information about ingredients on packaging, which consumers can access in a variety of ways through smartphones and online. The effort is intended to integrate sustainability with transparency so consumers can place trust in where their food comes from and how it’s grown. The GMA says early estimates indicate within five years, more than 80% of food, beverage and other household products consumers purchase will carry the SmartLabel.

Greenway observes agriculture has communicated sustainability messages for decades. What’s changed today, he says, are the communications channels being reconstructed by food manufacturers or social media. “We need to publicly pledge and commit ourselves to sustainable production practices, and find a way to get information in front of consumers so they bump into it. More online content and use of social media can help take farmers’ voices to where they’ve never been before.”

For More Information:

> USFRA Full Sustainability Report

> Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code

> General Mills Initiative

> Field to Market


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