Walmart sustainability pledges

May 9, 2014

— Ag, food companies declare goals at inaugural Walmart Expo

The nation’s largest retailer showed its ability to demand more sustainable production practices throughout the food supply chain at the recent Walmart Sustainability Product Expo.

Walmart executives used the event to talk about how to “rewire the system” in ways that would have a significant impact on improving the environment. That entailed touting various collaborative efforts to improve efficiency and reduce waste throughout the supply chain for Walmart stores. Company officials noted, for instance, that as much as 40 percent of U.S. food is wasted. If food waste were reduced, that would go a long way toward not only ensuring more food is available, but also that the environmental footprint of the food industry is improved.

“You have in your hand the ability to send the right signal on new ways to produce food,” said Manuel Gomez, Walmart’s Vice President of Sustainability.

Major food and agricultural companies at the expo signed pledges to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 6 million tons while working to adapt sustainability programs for at least 8 million acres of farmland globally.

Hugh Grant, Chairman and CEO of Monsanto Co., noted agriculture is at the center of more discussions today about sustainability as the population heads for potentially 9.6 billion people by 2050, according to the latest projections. Grant said climate change will be a growing challenge in efforts to feed the world.

“It’s going to become warmer, dustier, drier and thirstier as more people turn up on this little blue planet,” Grant said.

Monsanto committed to becoming more efficient with water use in its seed production operations and reduce water usage 25 percent by 2020. Such measures potentially would save between 30-80 billion gallons of water every year.

Efficiency measures would be taken at farms the company owns, as well as contract operations that grow seed for the company. The company intends to use more drip-irrigation systems to help reach those goals.

Monsanto also announced at the Walmart expo that the seed company would create “smarter seeds,” as well as help farmers with precision management tools to apply fertilizers more efficiently and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on 1 million acres by 2020.

“Growers are looking for help. They are looking for help in better managing water and soil and producing more with less,” Grant said.

Within Walmart, the company has worked with suppliers as part of a sustainability effort to ensure palm oil is sourced from farmers who are not destroying more rainforests. The company also is just beginning efforts in the beef industry to define how beef could be sustainably sourced. Walmart also has plans to work with more suppliers to lower fertilizer usage on at least 14 million acres of cropland.

Leon Corzine, a farmer from Assumption, IL, encouraged Walmart and suppliers to ensure farmers are in the room when discussions are happening about sustainability in agriculture.

“When we have these discussions, farmers need to be represented so that everyone understands what farmers are actually doing on the farm and with some of the initiatives and new technology, what we are able to do,” Corzine said.

Corzine said technology is showing more farmers where they can reduce fertilizer usage and where more fertilizer is needed in a field. Corzine was excited about the potential of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to scout fields in the future with infrared cameras that will better inform farmers what the plants need for nutrients in particular areas of the field.

“In trying to do the right thing, don’t take any of those tools in the toolbox away from us,” Corzine said of ensuring farmers continue to have access to biotech crops.

Companies had different strategies for their plans to work with farmers on sustainability programs. Greg Page, Executive Chairman of the Board for Cargill Inc., said his company would soon launch “NextField,” a precision agriculture platform. The program would analyze hundreds of factors going into each farmer’s field to improve efficiency.

Rick Smith, President and CEO for Dairy Farmers of America, said the dairy cooperative is committed to the dairy industry’s program to reduce the carbon footprint of dairy products by 25 percent by 2020. The industry’s efforts to reduce methane emissions nationally were recently recognized by the White House.

Campbell’s Soup, General Mills, Kellogg’s and PepsiCo also highlighted their own sustainability initiatives in the supply chain to reduce water use and greenhouse-gas emissions. General Mills, for instance, plans to help push farmer enrollment in Field to Market to 2.5 million acres by the end of 2015. — Chris Clayton, DTN