The Foundations of Food:

Corporate Good Practice

By Margo Mosher

In order to make meaningful progress toward creating a new food system, we must take a holistic view to our food growing practices and focus on the foundational elements.

We see great opportunity to change the ways in which we grow food in order to achieve wins across planetary health, human health, and the economy, all whilst growing enough food to sustain our growing global population. We must take a holistic view to our farming practices and focus on some of the foundational aspects of growing food, such as soil health, pollinators and animal protein. Here we explore in more depth three of the challenges facing our food system and how some businesses are addressing them.

The Foundation of Food-Growing

Large-scale industrial agriculture is diminishing the very substance that we need to grow our food: soil. We have lost half the topsoil on the planet in the last 150 years due in part to forests and grasslands being converted for agriculture, which leaves soil prone to erosion. In addition to the loss of topsoil, we face other challenges from years of monoculture growth such as poor soil health and decreased abilities to store carbon and water. Soil quality is strongly tied to food quality, and evidence suggests that the nutrient qualities of our food have declined, in part due to deterioration of soil health. A study compared the nutrient data of twelve vegetables and found that levels of calcium, iron and vitamin C were approximately 30% lower than levels in the same vegetables in 1975.

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Evidence suggests that the nutrient qualities of our food have declined, in part due to deterioration of soil health.

Without healthy, available soils we struggle to grow healthy, nutrient-rich foods. And while hydroponic farming and other future innovations may enable some growing of food without soil, we need high quality soil in order to produce the quantity and quality of food needed to sustain our global population.

There are a number of solutions to fostering soil health and availability. A soil health-focused management philosophy has been gaining momentum and focuses on four principles: reduce or eliminate tillage, keep plant residues on the soil surface, keep living roots in the ground, and maximize diversity of plants and animals. These principles and related practices can help farmers change the game when it comes to soil health and preservation, and can also help address other sustainability challenges such as water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Some of these practices can foster improved financial productivity of farming at the same time.

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Gongoni, 'grand canyon' of west bengal, India. Half the topsoil on the planet has been eroded in the last 150 years due in part to forests and grasslands being converted for agriculture.

Practices, such as carbon farming, can be used to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. Carbon farming has been called “the foundation of the future of civilization” by experts such as Paul Hawken, and regenerative agriculture focused on soil health is ranked as a key solution to addressing climate change in his recent book, Drawdown. Farming practices specific to livestock such as managed grazing and silvopasture can also help preserve soil health. Managed grazing can improve soil health, sequester carbon, retain water and increase productivity of the land. David Montgomery, Professor and author notes, “Restoring fertility to degraded agricultural soils is one of humanity’s most pressing and under-recognized natural infrastructure projects.”

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Managed grazing can improve soil health, sequester carbon, retain water and increase productivity of the land.

General Mills is one company that is investing heavily in soil by supporting reThink Soil: A roadmap to US Soil Health, led by The Nature Conservancy. The Soil Health Roadmap outlines 10 steps “to achieve widespread adoption of adaptive soil health systems on more than 50 percent of U.S. cropland by 2025.” Given General Mills’ reliance on crops such as wheat, corn and oats, it has an incentive to protect soil. Jerry Lynch, Chief Sustainability Officer at General Mills, notes, “As a global food company, it’s imperative to protect the natural resources and communities upon which our business depends. In our case, the foundation is soil health.”

Campbell’s Soup is also working to improve soil through conservation and farming practices and focusing on its wheat and corn sourcing. Meal-kit company Blue Apron is focused on soil health as well, leveraging agroecology expertise to guide their sourcing plans. In addition, the fast-casual restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, well known for its local and conscientious sourcing practices, is also investing in soil health. Chipotle sources a portion of its beans from growers using conservation tillage methods that improve soil conditions and reduce erosion. The company also sources many ingredients from organic growers.

Pollinators in Peril

Another critical component of food-growing is pollinators. Bees, moths, bats and other pollinators sustain many of our crops, and like soil, this key input to our food-growing capabilities is threatened. Pollinators are in decline due to a number of factors including industrial agriculture and the use of pesticides. There is also some uncertainty as to the causes of pollinator decline. For instance, a range of factors have been cited for the cause of bee Colony Collapse Disorder, such as pesticide use, stress from transportation to multiple sites for pollination, and new diseases. With 35% of global crop production – valued at $577 billion per year – relying on pollinators, this is a critical issue for the future of food.

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Pollinators are in decline due to a number of factors including industrial agriculture and the use of pesticides.

Some companies are working to protect these pollinator populations. Whole Foods is running a consumer education campaign on the importance of pollinators, highlighting how certain dishes would look without the benefits of pollinators (for example, guacamole would just be left with salt and limes) and then outlining what the public can do to help pollinators. Land O’Lakes is engaging their employees in the PolliNation project, enabling them to plant pollinator-friendly gardens.

General Mills has been active on this issue as well, partnering with the Xerces Society and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restore and protect pollinator habitat throughout the US. General Mills explains, “The five-year, $4 million financial commitment will support farmers across the U.S. by providing technical assistance to plant and protect pollinator habitat, such as native wildflower field edges and flowering hedgerows.” One of its brands, Cheerios, launched a campaign titled #BringBackTheBees and sent 1.5 billion seeds to people who requested wildflower seeds.

Animal Protein Gets a Rethink

Our meat-heavy habits are also causing significant negative impacts on our environment and our health. Global livestock production accounts for 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. Researchers estimate that intensive livestock production alone is the largest single contributing factor to climate change. However, as we have noted above, there are grazing management practices that foster carbon storage in soil and ultimately help contribute to climate change solutions. In addition to climate change impacts, the water impacts of meat are significant, with the average water footprint per calorie of beef twenty times larger than that of cereals and starchy roots.

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The way in which we’re producing meat is not only impacting natural resources, it’s impacting our health.

The way in which we’re producing meat is not only impacting natural resources, it’s impacting our health. In order to produce more meat faster (growth promotion), antibiotics are used at enormous scales: in 2014, pharmaceutical companies sold nearly 21 million pounds of antibiotics for use in food animals, which is more than three times the amount sold for use in humans. This practice has led to antibiotic resistance, which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies as one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. Drug-resistant infections already directly cause an estimated 700,000 deaths each year. It’s expected this will rise to 10 million a year by 2050.

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Meat Free: companies are focusing on meat and meat alternatives as a way to minimize environmental impacts and address customer preferences and potential health concerns related to meat.

Chipotle and other companies are focusing on meat and meat alternatives as a way to minimize environmental impacts and address customer preferences and potential health concerns related to meat. Chipotle offers “sofritas” made from organic soybeans as a vegetarian option. Furthermore, Tyson Foods has invested in a plant-based protein company, Beyond Meat, and many other plant-based protein companies are cropping up. Plant-based proteins offer solutions to some of the challenges described earlier, such as overall environmental footprint, the overuse of antibiotics in livestock, and GHG emissions. Plant-based proteins are also meeting customer preferences: a recent Mintel study suggests the mainstreaming of vegetarian/vegan offerings in North America, finding that 30% of US adults are trying to eat a more plant-based diet.

Companies are also working to reduce the use of antibiotics in meat production. The results of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chain Reaction report, which rates the top 25 US fast-food and -casual restaurant chains on their antibiotics use policies and practices, highlight Panera and Chipotle’s strong efforts to implement policies and use antibiotics responsibly. Moreover, the Canadian packaged meat company Maple Leaf just launched an ambitious plan to be “the most sustainable protein company on earth”, outlining efforts to reduce negative impacts of producing meat and advocating for eating meat in moderation.

Working with the System to Create a Better Way Forward

It’s important to note that addressing such challenges within our food system is of course not easy; each decision comes with tradeoffs. Take cage-free eggs for example. Cage-free production typically brings animal welfare benefits, such as enabling chickens to walk, spread their wings and generally have a more humane life. However, the Coalition for Sustainable Eggs has conducted studies on various egg production methods and finds that some cage-free egg production practices can cause poorer worker health and safety conditions, as well as increased impacts on natural resources compared to conventional production. For example, collecting eggs from the ground in cage-free aviaries increases physical strain and exposure to respiratory hazards.

Developing a food system that feeds our growing global population whilst also achieving accomplishments across numerous sustainability factors, and whilst balancing economic considerations is a tall order. The good news is that in addition to the corporate efforts described above, others are aiming to tackle these challenges. One such example is the EAT Foundation, which aims “to reform the global food system and enable us to feed a growing global population with healthy food from a healthy planet.” EAT is conducting research to improve nutrition and tackle global health and environmental challenges such as obesity and climate change. We also see companies like Unilever articulating bold thinking around their role in creating a sustainable food system, with their Five Steps to a Sustainable Food System.

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The environment around us works as an intricately connected system and we must remember that we are part of this system.

In order to make meaningful progress toward creating a new food system, we must take a holistic view to our food growing practices and focus on the foundational elements. Breaking out of the silo of thinking about soil health separate from livestock grazing, for example, will help us identify interconnected solutions that we haven’t yet seen. The environment around us works as an intricately connected system and we must remember that we are part of this system. We need to get smart, make tough but strategic choices and ultimately take action at a pace that enables us to create a regenerative food system for humans, our economy and the ecosystems we rely on to thrive.

About the author

Margo Mosher

@margomo

Senior Manager in SustainAbility’s New York office. Outdoor enthusiast, passionate about building a sustainable future.