Sustainability in agriculture is a ‘must have’ not a ‘should have’

07-06-2023 | |
Ivo Lansbergen: “What we do now will impact our children, they will either reap the benefits or pay the price”. Photo: DSM-Firmenich
Ivo Lansbergen: “What we do now will impact our children, they will either reap the benefits or pay the price”. Photo: DSM-Firmenich

When it comes to sustainability, the time to be proactive is now. Acting in crisis generally costs more as decisions are made with no science behind them. These were among the points put forward at the recent World Nutrition Forum held in Cancún, Mexico.

The World Nutrition Forum held by DSM-Firmenich (see box), brought together hundreds of leading experts from around the globe in the fields of science, academia, research, veterinary medicine, animal nutrition, genetics, business and feed manufacturing. Over a 2-day period they discussed, debated and shared their knowledge. The emphasis on sustainability during the event could not be mistaken, as perfectly illustrated by the speakers discussed in more detail in this review.

Good for me is good for the planet

“The agricultural sector is going through both challenging and exciting times,” said the company’s executive vice president, Ivo Lansbergen, in his opening remarks at the forum. “We are living in a poly-crisis – multiple crises happening simultaneously,” he added. Climate change, he believes, is the overarching one. “This will have a huge impact on all of us, in both our private and professional lives. What we do now will impact our children; they will either reap the benefits or pay the price.”

It is expected that there will be 10 billion people living on this little planet of ours by 2050, compared with the current 8 billion. And those 10 billion will all need to be fed. Currently, 40% of the world’s landmass is used for agricultural purposes. But to be able to feed the world in 2050 that needs to increase to 50%, which is not a viable option. Lansbergen called this “the protein dilemma” for the industry. “How can the industry produce affordable proteins, enough to feed the world, while also making it financially viable for their businesses. And on top of that, at low cost to the planet.”

He is convinced data is the answer, acknowledging that innovations using enzymes need to continue, but that alone is not enough. “What we need is transparency based on data,” he said. Lansbergen believes consumers still want affordability and quality but they also want to know the eco-impact of what they buy. They want to know that the product is good for them and good for the planet. And that, Lansbergen said, will be the driving force for the future.

Evolution of corporate sustainability

Bod Langert, retired VP of CSR & sustainability, McDonald’s. Photo: DSM-Firmenich
Bod Langert, McDonald’s retired vice president of CSR and sustainability. Photo: DSM-Firmenich

Society’s demands associated with sustainability that Lansbergen highlighted have been on the radar of global fastfood chain, McDonald’s, for quite some time. Bod Langert, the company’s retired vice president of CSR and sustainability, worked in the “sustainability business” for 35 years. He was instrumental in instigating sustainability policies at McDonald’s. Back in those early years, sustainability was for many like a firefighting exercise.

Langert shared his experience of what it was like back when he started and how the culture of corporate sustainability is completely different today. Back then, there was no language for sustainability, no framework, no reports, and no jobs. It was considered peripheral; the approach was reactive – fix the problem and move on. In many ways, this approach costs companies more, as rash decisions are made with no science behind them. In fact, Langert recalled it wasn’t until 2014 that the CEO at the time, Don Thompson, decided he was sick and tired of being reactive – he wanted to move to a proactive strategy and create a sustainability framework.

“Corporate sustainability has come a long way,” Langert said, adding that “companies are learning that they are responsible for the entire lifecycle of their product”. The mindset has changed. Corporations have entire departments dedicated to sustainability. They publish reports, set goals and targets and communicate their wins.

He feels, however, that still today, not everyone is on board. When it comes to sustainability, people generally sit in 1 of 3 camps; believers, fence-sitters, and sceptics. And of course, it is challenging, but sustainability is such a broad issue. It is not just about doing the right thing – it also makes good business sense. There is much to be gained from a good sustainability strategy. “After all, people want to feel good about the products they buy,” he concluded.

The Achilles heel of agriculture: methane

Next on, Dr Frank Mitloehner of the University of California said that agriculture’s impact on the environment has been misrepresented. “Our kids learn in school that changing their diet is one of the most effective ways of reducing our impact on the climate. And that is simply not true,” he said. “In fact, it would take 2 years of being vegan to make up for 1 transatlantic flight.”

Dr Frank Mitloehner of the University of California.
Dr Frank Mitloehner of the University of California. Photo: Allison Winstanley

Mitloehner explained that methane is a ‘flow gas’, it can be produced, but also consumed and destroyed, whereas CO2 is a ‘stock gas’ that just accumulates. He said: “I am not saying that methane doesn’t matter. What I am saying is if you are to calculate its impact on warming correctly you need to look at not just the sources but also the sinks.”

With the 2050 challenge looming and the growing demand for protein-sourced food, Mitloehner said it’s essential to look to 4 main tools for the solution:

  • Improve reproduction efficiency
  • Improve livestock health
  • Improve genetics
  • More energy-dense diets

Because, he concluded, moving forward, “the demand for more protein-sourced food should be satisfied by more efficient animals and not just more animals.”

Making the invisible visible

A common thread was apparent in the presentations made over the 2 days of the forum, the strongest of which was the critical role of data in achieving sustainability goals. Because without knowing the current situation, improvement is impossible, i.e., making the invisible visible. Data alone will not be enough, though; this journey has to be made together across the entire value chain from the farmer to the consumer. And, last but by no means least, sustainability is not a ‘should have’ but a ‘must have’.

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Allison Winstanley Web coordinator