Employing a nuts to soup approach to agriculture sustainability.
By Dr. Daniel Sonke, Manager, Agriculture Sustainability Programs, Campbell Soup
As Campbell’s 2011 CSR Report goes to press, our Agriculture Sustainability Programs are still very new.
But agriculture sustainability is not new to the company. I started working at Campbell in August 2011 as the Agriculture Sustainability Programs Manager knowing that the company had won several awards for assisting its vegetable growers to significantly reduce pesticides in the 1990s.
A Long History with Agriculture Sustainability
I learned quickly that Campbell had a lot to say about agriculture sustainability already – in 1939 the company opened its Agriculture Research Department, which focuses on breeding varieties to help farmers get higher yields while naturally resisting diseases and pests. Campbell has also been promoting the use of drip irrigation in vegetables, which improves the efficiency of crop production per liter of water used and reduces the likelihood of soil erosion and indirect effects on natural water bodies.
In 2007, Campbell gave a significant endowment to the University of California (UC) Agriculture Sustainability Institute to fund extensive research. As for our suppliers, Campbell has been aggressively asking questions about how they are addressing sustainability in complex supply chains.
Much of Campbell’s agriculture activity is focused on processing tomatoes. Tomatoes, after all, are used in a wide variety of our products from soups to salsa, spaghetti sauce and V-8 juices. By forming long-term relationships with farmers, Campbell already earned yet another point on my sustainability checklist.
I learned that all the processing tomato farms that contract with the company are family owned and operated, and some of them are now in their third generation of supplying to Campbell Soup Company.
Since I grew up on a family farm, I enjoy sitting down with these farmers at the coffee shop to learn about their practices and truly share ideas across the table – we’re all eager to learn from each other so the conversations become valuable and truly enriching.
Despite the multi-generational nature of the farms, though, life has continued to evolve for the farmers. They are adopting technologies to monitor weather and soil water data using smart phones, tracking fertilizer, pesticide, and water inputs with spreadsheets, and orchestrating the centuries-old practice of rotating crops using 21st century technology.
Agriculture Responsibility: Our Environmental, Social and Economic Footprint
It would, however, be naïve to suggest that we've done everything we can to help empower and educate our suppliers and partners.
There is a lot of work to be done, and our programs needs to focus attention where we can be most effective. Agriculture has a broad footprint on our sustainability from water to wildlife, energy to employees, greenhouse gasses and green spaces, etc. And with normal weather changes from year to year and soil differences even from one side of a field to another, the ecology of farming is such that tracking progress is best done on a scale of decades instead of years.
To do anything well in this environment, we need to prioritize. With this in mind, we spent a few months in 2011 conducting a series of stakeholder interviews.
Approximately 50 interviews were conducted of which 30 interviewees were employees, both in North America and international branches of the company.
The remaining interviewees included farmers and representatives of agriculture suppliers, retail and food service companies that purchase from us, and non-governmental organizations with an interest in the environmental and social aspects of farming.
Understanding Our Stakeholders' Priorities
Some clear priorities emerged from these interviews.
When stakeholders think of Campbell Soup, they think of vegetables. We also have closer relationships with farmers of tomatoes and other vegetables than other segments of our supply chain. Therefore, our programs focus on vegetables.
Our stakeholders felt that water was our highest priority, followed by fertilizer, soil quality, energy, and pesticides. (Lest you think greenhouse gasses were left out, in crops the biggest contributor to a greenhouse footprint is almost always nitrogen fertilizer use due to a quirk of soil biology resulting in a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide.)
Of course, we’ll support agriculture sustainability more broadly as well, but these are our priorities.
The Challenge Ahead
The challenge ahead is going to be benchmarking and encouraging progress against these priority areas. But our journey has already started.
We’re beginning to collect data on key metrics related to our five priorities so that we can establish a baseline.
We’re also researching key practices that can help vegetable growers improve against that baseline in a business-friendly way. While farmers are already adopting some of these practices, such as drip irrigation and reducing tillage, others will need additional research and refinement before they can be implemented.
One clear technology winner with cross cutting benefits is drip irrigation. It has been known for a long time that drip irrigation improves tomato yields while improving water use efficiency. Farmers have been quick to invest in it even though it is an expensive method.
Now, however, emerging research suggests other benefits as well.
By fertilizing through the drip system, not only is fertilizer more likely to reach the roots of the plant but the greenhouse gas footprint changes as well. Initial research carried out by the UC Agriculture Sustainability Institute indicated, for example, that the nitrous oxide footprint in tomato fields may drop by half when drip irrigation is used instead of the traditional furrow irrigation [C.M. Kallenbach et al. / Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 137 (2010) 251–260].
Further research is ongoing but it provides even more incentive for our drip-irrigated tomato acreage to grow quickly from its level in 2011: 29 percent. In 2012, we are researching methods to make drip irrigation even more water and energy efficient and researching nutrient management tools to increase the efficiency of fertilizer use.
After all, the payback is not just increased yields per acre return, but also cleaner air and water.
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About Daniel Sonke
Dan Sonke grew up working on his family's almond farm near Ripon, California. An expert on environmental issues in agriculture, Dan has previously served as Assistant Integrated Pest Management Coordinator for the University of Florida, Director of Science for Protected Harvest, and Senior Scientist for SureHarvest, Inc. His Doctorate in Plant Medicine (DPM) is a cutting edge professional degree in crop health management from the University of Florida. He has developed sustainable agriculture programs for fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and nuts, including the California Almond Sustainability Program.
In a reverse twist on the soup-to-nuts approach, he was hired in 2011 by Campbell Soup Company as Manager of Agriculture Sustainability Program to develop the company’s approach to sustainability in agriculture.