With a new strategic approach, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is reevaluating how to feed a growing population and commit to sustainability. Its program focuses on reducing fertilizer pollution—a challenge for farmers and communities the world across—through activating market incentives for commodity crop farmers to transition to more sustainable practices. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Suzy Friedman, Senior Director of Agricultural Sustainability at the EDF, about the strategies and what consumers can do to influence—and accelerate—change.
Food Tank (FT): Agricultural emissions contribute one-third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This program overview focuses on fertilizer pollution and waste in the United States, citing that commodity crops absorb less than half the fertilizer farmers apply in the fields. Can you elaborate on the impact that fertilizer pollution has on the environment?
Suzy Friedman (SF): The global population is expected to climb from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. If current consumption trends continue, this will require a 70 percent increase in food production and the environmental problems associated with agriculture will worsen. We need to increase crop yields while protecting the planet’s natural resources. Right now, agriculture is the fifth-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from the United States, emitting 10 percent of total GHGs. Fertilizer use and unsustainable soil management are responsible for half of those emissions.
Moreover, the overuse of fertilizers is the leading cause of over 400 dead zones across the globe, covering one-quarter of a million square kilometers. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico alone covered more than 5,000 square miles in 2014—an area about the size of Connecticut.
And, fertilizer runoff contaminates water supplies. In the summer of 2016, the residents of Toledo discovered this when a toxic algal bloom forced them to find water elsewhere for two days. U.S. municipalities spend US$ 1.7 billion alone each year to remove agricultural nitrates from drinking water. In 2012, nearly half a billion dollars worth of inefficiently applied fertilizer ran off corn acres into the Mississippi River Basin and onto the Gulf of Mexico, costing regional corn farmers roughly US$ 420 million each year.
FT: The EDF strategy focuses on how to reduce fertilizer pollution in commodity crop production. It outlines a two-pronged approach that uses market incentives: creating demand for sustainably grown commodity crops through partnerships with big buyers (like Walmart or General Mills) and developing carbon markets that would reward farmers who adopt less wasteful practices that may reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Can you elaborate on why such collaboration and cooperation between the private and public sectors is important in the transition to more sustainable commodity crops?
SF: In reality, “business as usual” in agriculture is not just harmful to the planet—it hurts the bottom line for business and introduces greater risk, from retailer to farmer. Large retailers and consumer products companies have the leverage to reverse these trends. The EDF is working directly with the companies and people most involved in, influenced by, and economically invested in the agricultural system and its future—major retailers like Walmart, large food companies, agribusinesses, carbon markets, and farmers themselves. Food companies and retailers like Walmart face increasing pressure from consumers to be good corporate citizens, including on sustainability, and face increasing supply risks from extreme weather and threats of regulation or even lawsuits that could impact crop production, such as in Des Moines, Iowa.
FT: Part of what the program focuses on is a paradox: the need to feed a growing global population while adopting more sustainable and less wasteful agricultural practices. What are some of the biggest tensions you see between agricultural productivity and environmental health and sustainability? How can those tensions be alleviated?
SF: We need to be very smart and strategic about the practices, technologies, and tools for improving sustainability so that we can have both—high levels of productivity and improved outcomes for water and climate. We need to be smart about what to produce where—and to do it in ways that are as efficient as possible with inputs, land use, and soil health management. We need to continually push for more and better science to guide our decisions while moving forward with the no-regrets measures like improving nutrient use efficiency, implementing soil health measures, avoiding cultivating sensitive lands, and strategically placing wetlands and other filters to improve water quality. I spoke to Iowa farmer Denny Friest about these issues and the role of agricultural retailers in encouraging sustainability.
FT: How can these proposed strategies for sustainability influence transitions to more sustainable agriculture on an international level? What role do you see for international cooperation or collaboration in driving the transition to more sustainable commodity crop production?
SF: We are just starting to look at this, but we believe there are important lessons to be learned and shared. The approach of efficient, smart crop production, sustainable intensification, and ongoing scientific work to find even better ways carries around the world. We need to leverage the trusted networks and relationships farmers have and work through those trusted advisors. We need the supply chain to be full partners and players in this—not just waiting for improvements, but being active partners in training, technology transfer, communications, and more.
FT: In this program overview, the EDF suggests that companies with big purchasing power can influence transitions in farming—what role do you see for the consumer in motivating farmers to adapt to agricultural systems that emit fewer greenhouse gasses and waste less fertilizer? How can Food Tank readers address the need for more the sustainable production of commodity crops outlined in the report?
SF: Consumers need to communicate to those that they buy from—food companies and retailers—that sustainability is important and is an expectation. We need consumers to continue to become better informed about what sustainability really means. Consumers need to recognize their role in communicating to the supply chain and the food choices they make. They also need to learn much more about the realities of the food system, the agricultural system, that small does not mean good, organic, and local are pieces of the puzzle but not the full solution for sustainability. It is going to take a diversity of systems and approaches.
Food Tank readers can become more educated on what sustainability means in the context of the broader food system—that sustainability is about performance, not size, and their voices are of the utmost importance in communicating with supply chain stakeholders. They can be part of a discussion that is open minded about the pathways to sustainability—the opportunities for real sustainability at the small and large scales, in conventional agriculture and organic and local agriculture, and the partnerships that can make this a reality.