State of Green Business

From field to fork: Tyson harnesses ag tech for sustainable food production

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Nearly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture and deforestation, but if we continue with business as usual, agriculture could become the world’s largest contributor to climate change. That’s because feeding a growing population takes a toll on the earth, including outsized impacts on our soil, water and climate.  

Consumers are starting to recognize this massive challenge, which is part of the reason why the demand for sustainably grown food has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, seemingly simple solutions such as switching to a plant-based diet are also the least realistic. Despite the IPCC’s call for widespread individual diet changes, global meat consumption is expected to increase by over 80 percent by 2050.

That’s why I believe the best and most pragmatic path forward is to ensure that meat — and all food — is produced as sustainably as possible, and why I believe the world’s biggest food brands need to take the lead in doing so.

Tyson Foods — the largest food company in the U.S. — showcased just such leadership last week by announcing a new initiative to accelerate sustainable food production and make its recent climate and land stewardship goals a reality, in part through the large-scale deployment of exciting ag tech.

Scaling sustainable farming with ag tech

Farmers need nitrogen fertilizer to grow crops and remain competitive. Yet when not all of that fertilizer is absorbed by crops, it runs off the field and can contribute to water quality degradation and agricultural GHG emissions. Nitrogen loss is also a source of lost income for farmers.

The best way to address this dilemma is to apply that fertilizer more precisely. Of course, that’s far easier said than done — but that’s also where ag tech comes in.

Working with Environmental Defense Fund, Tyson will scale up the use of cloud-based agricultural technologies from MyFarms and Farmers Business Network (FBN). Both systems collect information on agricultural production practices while protecting data privacy.  

Insights from the analysis of that data, which will include nitrogen loss, have the potential to inform more sustainable food production methods across one of the world’s biggest supply chains.

I’m also excited by the immediate deployment of these technologies. Starting right now, both companies will start recruiting farmers and they won’t stop until those farmers collectively represent 500,000 acres of cropland. From what I’ve seen to date, most companies pilot sustainable agriculture practices on a few thousand acres of land — meaning that Tyson plans to cover many times the acreage of other programs. That’s a big deal.

If Tyson can do it, so can you

None of this will be easy, and much hard work remains for the animal agriculture industry to reduce its environmental footprint. But if Tyson can prove the viability of farming practices that are good for the planet and for profits, it would be a game changer. Because if the largest food company in the country can measure and reward environmental performance from field to fork, anyone can.

In the meantime, that Tyson and Smithfield Foods are going beyond climate commitments towards tangible actions sends strong signals that sustainability indeed could become business as usual.

Moving beyond commitments

Although myriad food companies have set climate goals, the real tough part comes post-commitment: the blood, sweat and tears, the unsexy work of planning, spreadsheets and actually figuring out how to make promises a reality. True corporate leadership requires this commitment to hard work, along with collaboration across supply chains for maximum scale and impact, and a willingness to support smart climate and energy policy.  

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