Less than a year after going public via SPAC, crop genetics company Benson Hill has released its first-ever environmental, social and governance (ESG) report outlining its progress on various sustainability efforts from 2021 and the first half of 2022.
The company, based in St. Louis, Missouri in the US, has developed a genetically-bred, higher-protein soybean it calls the Ultra High Protein (UHP) soybean variety for use in soy-based foods. Other varieties of Benson Hill soybean include one for more sustainable livestock and aquaculture farming and others for the production of healthier cooking oils. Yellow pea proteins are also part of the company’s portfolio.
Closed-loop thinking & ESG
Benson Hill operates on a “closed loop” farming model where the company partners with farmers to grow soybeans while also integrating management practices like regenerative agriculture that can improve farm operations and environmental impact. Benson Hill processes the beans in-house, to maintain its differentiated soybean supply versus other lower protein soybeans that it might mix with at third-party facilities. This model, therefore, allows Benson Hill to leverage data from the farm all the way through ingredient manufacturing, giving the company more insight into these areas.
That closed-loop model is critical to understanding Benson Hill’s approach to ESG-related initiatives. As CEO Matt Crisp outlined in his introduction to the new report, Benson Hill’s closed loop system is built on two ESG concepts applied to both seed development and the company’s approach to the market: “sustainable design” and “systems thinking.”
“Many companies view ESG as a lens to manage risk to their business, such as measuring operational environmental footprint or employee diversity,” he writes of the concept of sustainable design. “While these are important, we view scaling our products with inherent sustainability benefits as a driving focus for our business. The same products that deliver our financial performance can also deliver positive social and environmental impact beyond our walls and fields.”
Systems thinking, meanwhile, considers the needs of all stakeholders in the value chain, from the farmer to the consumer. “[Systems thinking] considers how innovation in the seed can create savings and efficiencies throughout the entire system,” writes Crisp.
“We’re not talking to a single stakeholder; we’re understanding how that product is impacting everyone,” Anthony Kingsley, senior director of sustainability and ESG at Benson Hill, tells AFN. “This is actually huge because when you think about the vertical integration, everyone creates solutions for one stakeholder group and you don’t have a good understanding of how that impacts others down the line or up the line. So this is really a very different way of thinking about it and involving the business or I should say, involving the larger sector.”
Channeling all stakeholders
Another notable (and related) milestone Benson Hill highlights in its report is the formation of the Sustainable Food Advisory Council (SFAC), which was created this year to “channel external stakeholder insights.”
The SFAC, made up of a variety of thought leaders including health experts, White House advisers and individuals from the food and beverage private sector, advises and makes recommendations to Benson Hill’s Sustainability and Governance Committee and executive team to help govern ESG decisions.
“This allows us additional direct channeling of these experts who have seen things happen, who are engaged actively today in different sectors, whether it’s academia or investing in the private sector or just expertise across the entire value chain,” Kingsley says of the SFAC. “They can provide insights to not only our management team, but also to our board of directors on how our products are truly impacting the world around us.”
Piloting a carbon market
In 2021, Benson Hill launched a carbon market pilot in partnership with non-profit Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC). Through the program, farmers implement regenerative agriculture practices then generate carbon credits and earn payments for reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased soil carbon. ESMC quantifies the credits, manages third-party verification and makes the credits available to buyers.
Benson Hill’s closed-loop model is beneficial here since it collects agronomic data from the field all the way to the ingredients manufacturing stage.
The pilot project sequestered 53mt CO2 equivalent, or about 5,305 gallons of diesel, according to the report.
“Because of our closed loop model, our close relationship with farmers, obviously, technology with our processing assets, we’re able to have a very, very deep knowledge of our supply chain,” Kingsley explains. “As going through that process and collecting that data, we’re able to measure greenhouse gas emissions across different parts of our supply chain.”