How ConAgra sets the table for climate resilience

How ConAgra sets the table for climate resilience

ConAgra cartoon from company video

Is there an American who hasn’t tried Chef Boyardee’s ravioli? Hunt’s tomato sauce? Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn? Probably not.

And that’s why it’s so important that ConAgra Foods, the $16 billion, Omaha-based company that owns the brands, ensure it keeps producing and providing enough healthy, sustainably sourced food — without stoking climate change.

To accomplish that goal, the company is executing a four-pronged resilience approach:

1. Implementing energy efficiency strategies throughout its facilities to achieve a greenhouse-gas reduction goal of 20 percent per pound of product by 2020, drawing heavily on employee engagement and strategic capital investments in facility infrastructure, such as boiler control system upgrades, heat recovery projects and lighting retrofits;

2. Working with supply chain partners to assure sustainable, long-term sourcing of ingredients through sustainable agriculture practices and transport efficiency;

3. Fine-tuning a corporate climate change policy; and

4. Eliminating food waste in its facilities, thereby reducing the amount sent to landfills and cutting resulting GHG emissions.

Climate risk and resilience: Manage, mitigate, monitor

ConAgra recognizes that climate change is expressed both by sudden, sporadic, extreme weather events — such as Hurricane Sandy nearly two years ago, or the Missouri River floods in 2011 — and also by ongoing extreme conditions, such as the California drought.

Both sorts of climate events affect the company’s business, although differently. With Sandy in 2012, the company had to act quickly to protect its people and facilities, while implementing business continuity plans to minimize interruptions in production and service to customers.

“Both [Sandy and the Missouri flood] required some flexibility in how we operated, within our own facilities and with suppliers,” said Marcella Thompson, director of sustainability in ConAgra Foods’ Environment, Health & Safety department.

As for ongoing climate conditions, the resulting stress on agriculture places other pressures on the company.

“For us, this situation has underscored the importance of having long-term relationships with farmers who grow tomatoes for our two fresh-pack and canning facilities in California,” explained Thompson. “We have and will continue to look to these farmers to adopt best practices to conserve water while maximizing yield.”

Food waste

“We can’t ignore the connection between climate change and food waste,” said Thompson. “Agriculture, through crop cultivation, accounted for 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. Combine that with the fact that 30 to 40 percent of food grown and prepared is never consumed, and there’s a big opportunity to make progress just by eliminating this waste. It’s a challenge that extends up and down the supply chain — starting at the farm and extending all the way to plate waste at home and restaurants.”ConAgra foods

Once in landfills, waste produces greenhouse gases, further exacerbating the problem.

That tension likely will increase as the world is faced with feeding 9 billion people by 2050, she added. In this context, “Resiliency means everything is on the table — beginning with how and where food is grown, to what and how much people eat.”

Which is a key reason ConAgra focuses on solutions to climate change. “Adapting to [it] is much more about what we do than what we say. We have to change how we operate in light of how the climate is changing around us,” Thompson said.

That’s one reason the company, in 2010, included in its first set of sustainability goals diverting at least 75 percent of waste from landfills to better purposes, such as donations, animal feed, energy recovery or composting (for organic materials), and recycling (or energy recovery for packaging).

“In very short order, we realized that we needed to have a strategy to manage these material streams not as wastes but as byproducts that still had value,” said Gail Tavill, ConAgra’s vice president of sustainability. “Shifting our attitudes about these materials left over from manufacturing really helped several of our facilities take action.”

In an effort to reduce greenhouse gases by eliminating food waste at landfills, the company put systems in place in 2012 to track landfill and material diversion from its facilities, identifying 15 waste categories in line with the EPA’s waste reduction model (WARM). The results include improved understanding of the greenhouse gas emissions from the company’s management of waste materials, as well as the ability to quantify benefits from diverting them from landfills to find "higher-value homes" for them.

ConAgra estimates that in 2013 it diverted 93 percent of waste materials from landfills, avoiding more than 165,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas Scope 3 emissions.

“Today, we send less than 5 percent of organic materials to landfills as waste and continue to work to reduce that amount, so [we] have clearly exceeded our initial goal,” Tavill said. “In an effort to keep moving forward and looking ahead, we recently announced our 2020 Vision for sustainability, which includes a goal to reduce the amount of waste generated by 1 billion pounds.”

Employee engagement

Employees are key — to changing operations, to implementing new procedures and policies, to solving problems. Improving the company’s energy efficiency policy to reduce its own GHG emissions is one critical example.

Active Green Teams in most locations are a central part of the company’s employee engagement strategy. While often supported by plant management, the teams actively engage hourly employees across multiple disciplines and shifts. “Our employee Green Teams bring our sustainability ambitions to life,” said Thompson. “They are the heart and soul of our program, and they’re best positioned to identify opportunities in our facilities.”

Some basic training came first. “Initially, we had to educate our team on what GHGs are and our past performance, so that they could understand and communicate to others about our goals,” said ConAgra’s senior EHS specialist Debbie Stanley. “After understanding GHGs, [employees] were excited to help develop solutions that could impact the goal.”

The hardest part was actually putting in the time and resources to ensure employees understood GHGs, she said. And the reward? “Several times a week, I have team members come up with energy saving ideas and solutions and bring them to Green Team members, and I’ve had Green Team members lead projects to reduce GHGs,” Stanley said.

To get employees on board with energy efficiency, ConAgra’s frozen food facility in Russellville, Ark. held a Green Day during Earth Month. The local Green Team led activities to raise awareness and engage employees, hosting games such as "Spin the Wheel," to help them learn about energy facts, and a dice game, to answer questions on all three key resources — electricity, water and compressed air.

The rewards are many, from lowering utility costs for the facility, to boosting employee enthusiasm for the measures. “We’ve made [it] a big deal by really recognizing those who helped implement sustainability projects,” said Stanley. “Generally they’re eager to make a bigger difference.”

Supply chains

One issue of critical importance to ConAgra’s climate approach, as for many others in the food sector, is how best to work with its supply chain, which — from farming to packaging to transportation — is highly diverse and complex.

“It is important for us and other companies to understand our supply chains to assure long-term access to materials and minimize risks,” said Tavill. As an example, she cites the company’s sustainable agriculture programs that focus on those crops “where we have direct relationships with farmers,” including potatoes and tomatoes. “It’s the direct, long-term relationships we have with these business partners that enable us to collaborate effectively to really drive change.”

For instance, the company has helped its potato growers put into practice more water-efficient irrigation practices, which also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the farm by cutting energy use from pumping water. Many growers have implemented water-conservation best practices by using soil moisture probes to ensure irrigation only where needed, identifying dry spots with aerial infrared technology and employing low-flow, drop-down sprinkler nozzles to apply precisely the right amount of water.

“Our farmers and Ag Services team have taught me that there’s both an art and a science to farming,” said Thompson. “Innovative application of technology in agriculture enables farmers to grow more food on less land — with far fewer resources.”

The company has thousands of direct suppliers, sourcing everything from grains and nuts to vegetables and proteins. Plus, the company’s supply chain is many layers deep, reaching all the way to the farmer growing crops or raising animals that eventually reach the consumer as ConAgra products.

That complexity “forces us to prioritize and focus, balancing the relative climate impact and risk of an ingredient with our ability to influence change,” explained Thompson.

Adding to this complexity is “the frequent intersection of social and environmental issues” in the supply chain, she said. “Take palm oil, for example. Southeast Asia is indisputably the most efficient growing area for palm plantations contributing to the economic development of the region, but the area also has high natural capital value [that competes with demand for] greater transparency and pressures into supply chains for agriculture to continue to gain momentum and may change how we source ingredients longer term.”

To ensure that its palm oil purchases don’t add to deforestation of rainforests, further exacerbating climate change, the company recently pledged to source all of its palm oil from responsible and sustainable sources by December 2015.

And if that move is any indication, ConAgra likely is poised to continue forging a sustainable path to climate resilience — ensuring availability of sources and food, all while reducing carbon.

Top image from ConAgra's Food 2020 Sustainability Vision video