Feed Bites

Sustainability: No Longer a 'Nice to Have,' but a 'Need to Have'

Written by: Victoria Broehm   |   August 8, 2022

Environmental footprint

“Sustainability is complex, and as much as I would love to be able to say that there’s a silver bullet, it’s really like a silver buckshot, and it’s not as easy as a one-size-fits-all approach.”

If you ask me, Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Ph.D., AgNext director and Colorado State University animal science professor, hit the nail on the head about how sustainability is viewed in the animal food industry. I recently spoke with her about some of the challenges the agricultural community will face in the coming years – from increased corporate emissions reporting to carbon markets – and the steps the feed industry could take now to prepare.

Stackhouse-Lawson explained that her team of scientists, researchers and communicators at AgNext are forward-looking, working in parallel with the agriculture industry to share knowledge and partner on developing scalable innovation. Bringing innovation to market is often an area where the agricultural community is not proactive enough, she said, given the high risks.  

“What I hear from animal agriculture producers is, ‘I’m ready, tell me what to do’,” she said. “But I don’t have a ‘start here,’ and that’s hard because the ‘start here’ is innovation, and innovation is expensive. It’s a lot of risk for one company to take on that will lift the whole industry. And that’s a bit where we’re at.”

Without committed partners from academia, government and industry and increased funding for agricultural research, it is challenging to ensure that the next-generation solutions that could help the United States meet its climate goals are realized. But even without a solution to deploy yet, that does not stop pressure from coming from all angles – consumers, federal policymakers and regulators, investors, and corporate shareholders.

She explained that less than five years ago, it “was enough” for a company to only be responsible for its own impact, such as opting for a green-certified building when constructing a new facility. But today, “that has expanded, companies are responsible for their footprint as it extends into the supply chain of the product that they are procuring to sell whatever it is they are selling.” For a retailer, that can get unwieldy pretty quick.

This is one concern that the feed industry has with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent proposal that would require publicly traded companies to disclose scope 3 emissions data in their official corporate filings. Given that feed ingredients are used in products for myriad publicly traded companies, the American Feed Industry Association, along with other stakeholders, urged the SEC to hold on its proposal until it is better understood how these requirements would impact non-registrant, value-chain participants, which in many cases, do not have the resources or expertise to provide such information.

Stackhouse-Lawson explained that reporting scope 3 emissions could “become very big, very quickly,” given that these emissions essentially include “everything your business touches,” from the ingredients grown and used in feed and pet food, to animal protein products, to packaging materials, to transportation, to any waste that is landfilled.

Not only that, once reports are generated, she believes that “improvement will be expected,” which is hard for emissions from biological systems such as agriculture, where some variables, like weather, drought and floods, are outside of our control and could impact emissions significantly.

“I think it’s really important that companies are watching what’s happening and thinking about how they might work to meet these expectations because it’s likely that the product is being sold, at least at some point, into a publicly traded company, and they could have those expectations,” she said.

Globally, Europe and some areas of South America are further along in this reporting process, but it does not mean that they are more accurate or that there is consistency in standards, she explained. It just means that the United States should be watching, learning and preparing for the fact that these types of requirements are not going away and will be necessary to compete in a global marketplace in the future.

Carbon markets are another area that is progressing, but maybe at a slower rate than the accounting standards. She said there are still many questions about this market, such as what is tangible to buy. For example, a company could pay a farmer to have carbon sequestered underground, but from a scientific research perspective, do we know that the carbon will stay underground long-term, or could a drought several years from now that disturbs the top surface of the soil expel it?

Ultimately, she explains that many of these standards and markets policymakers are considering come from a “well-intentioned place” – to reduce the potential for increased warming across the globe. But “with biological systems, it’s not easy, and oftentimes, not straightforward” to develop solutions to address them.  

Overall, Stackhouse-Lawson believes there may not be a clear path, but the train on many of these things is moving. She advised that the industry should stay diligent, take this seriously, be flexible and always look for ways to continuously improve. She also suggested that companies can take steps now to document their actions, or “proof points,” an area agriculture hasn’t done a good job at, but will be essential in sharing the good sustainability story with others.

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Members can hear more insights from Stackhouse-Lawson at the upcoming AFIA Liquid Feed Symposium, happening Sept. 7-9 in New Orleans, La.

 

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