How Cargill and peers are collaborating for a sea change in ocean sustainability

How Cargill and peers are collaborating for a sea change in ocean sustainability

A Norwegian salmon farm
ShutterstockBy Marius Dobilas
Aerial view of a Norwegian salmon farm.

As rising global demand for food increases pressure on the earth's carrying capacity, the need expands for rapid innovation to provide sustainable food sources. The Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) is a radical experiment to address this need. CEOs work together to move forward the salmon farming industry as a whole, instead of competing and pushing individual companies ahead.

In a recent GreenBiz webcast, GSI Convenor Avrim Lazar joined the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) senior vice president for markets and food, Jason Clay, as well as GSI member Cargill's president of aqua nutrition, Einar Wathne, for a discussion around the need for change within global food production systems. Central to the discussion was pre-competitive collaboration and practical examples of how salmon farming can help business development.

Driving change in agriculture

 "The traditional agricultural sector is almost flat-lined," Lazar noted, emphasizing the urgency to transform global food systems. Increased aquaculture production can be a big part of the solution, he said, but expanded production depends on enhanced sustainability.

The GSI was founded on those fundamental premises. It sets clear, measurable goals, and includes half the global salmon-farming industry. Collaboration and leadership from the top are at the core of its efforts.

Pre-competitive collaboration

Collaboration promotes knowledge exchange to accelerate the speed of innovation, ensures greater breadth of adoption of improvements, and increases impact with industry-wide involvement. "You find solutions to problems much more quickly when companies are sharing best techniques. With pre-competitive collaboration, things move along much more quickly," Lazar emphasized.

Cargill's Wathne observed that the complexity of sustainability issues continues to grow. At the same time, global markets are not aligned and thus have different requirements. A company can't send different messages in response to conflicting demands. Yet when an industry speaks with one voice, Wathne said, it becomes more effective.

One myth surrounding food production and sustainability, according to Lazar, is that it's about good and bad players. Lazar posited that it's really about identifying technical barriers to good behavior and helping everyone overcome them.

By way of example, Lazar explained that all GSI members had agreed to pursue the strict Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standard. This objective seemed daunting at first, but when all the collaborators began comparing notes, they found they had collective competence covering most of the standard. They are working together to address the few challenging points that remain.

As a result, 40 percent of GSI members' production has reached the ASC standard, while five years ago, none had. Clay of WWF said, "We've never seen a transformative approach to certification like this one, and it happened because companies are actually working together."

Supporting this idea, Wathne quoted a proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

Broader applicability

The GSI thinks this model could apply across various industries and regions  and those who attempt it should consider these lessons from GSI members:

  • Commit to ambitious goals. This sort of effort is not for small plans.
  • Set clear objectives, scope and boundaries.
  • Listen, and be open to new ideas.
  • Speak honestly; a certain level of frankness is necessary for this to work.
  • Collectively design and commit to strategy and plans.
  • Mandate cooperation from the highest levels.
  • Be accountable by building cooperative effort into performance measurement.
  • Establish social connection. Companies may come together for self-interest, but taking time to bond and create a sense of community together is powerful and frequently underestimated.

Radical transparency

Wathne explained that Cargill Aqua Nutrition decided to pursue sustainable development further when it realized it was insufficiently transparent about aquaculture, leading to skepticism from stakeholders. The company perceived this as a risk, and started to disclose more. In so doing, it "killed some of the myths" about its operations.

Now, Wathne said, Cargill has an opportunity to be a leader and build brands around sustainable supply chains. The company is pursuing a strategy of "radical transparency" to become a market leader. "As consumers become increasingly aware, they are more willing to pay for sustainable products, creating more business opportunities for companies willing to think ahead."