Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest food companies known for its meat business, has partnered with non-profit Environmental Defense Fund to develop and deploy a set of initiatives that will help Tyson achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the company and its supply chains by 30% in 2030.
First Step: Improve Land Stewardship
Feed and fertilizer make up the largest share of the company’s GHG emissions as it purchases more corn than any of its competitors to feed its chickens; the company does not grow its own grain sources. The independent farmers who sell Tyson cattle and hogs also purchase corn to feed their livestock. In August 2018, it announced an effort to improve environmental practices across two million acres of corn production by 2020.
Tyson-EDF partnership’s first project focuses on land stewardship and aims to pilot and scale agriculture practices on 500,000 acres of corn that reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), improve water quality, and maximize farmer profitability. Other features of the partnership include analyzing sustainability data on farmland and publicly communicating progress and best practices that are identified from the pilot projects.
“We established this goal and we had some ideas about how we were going to get there, but we really wanted stakeholders from different sectors to come together and join us in defining land stewardship and areas of focus where we could make an impact,” Justin Ransom, senior director of sustainable food production at Tyson Foods, told AgFunderNews. “We held a meeting at the University of Arkansas with NGOs, USDA agencies, some of our suppliers, and trade associations like the National Corn Growers Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council to help us get informed.”
One of the takeaways from this two-day summit was that Tyson would need a third-party NGO like EDF to help substantiate its sustainability efforts and to define land stewardship in alignment with a broader group of stakeholders. EDF was identified as one of the leaders in understanding sustainable food production practices. One of Tyson’s first objectives was to pilot some of these learnings to see what could be scalable for the Arkansas-based producer.
“Sustainability has always been important to Tyson and it’s not a new conversation. We’ve had sustainability leaders in the company for years, but we really identified this as the right thing to do for the business longterm. It’s become part of our growth strategy as we talk with customers and consumers,” Ransom explains.
Consumer demand for greater sustainability and accountability in the food system has created a new segment of food companies with clear positions on biotechnology, farming practices, and environmental impact. Tyson has also taken note of this momentum.
“The brands we see having the greatest growth and success in the food sector are some of the brands that are focused on or have a message around sustainability. We can see value in that long-term for our business,” Ransom notes.
There may be other partnerships between Tyson and additional stakeholders in the future, particularly where there is an opportunity to define shared values that can help the company increase its positive impact, he adds. The company’s size and scale provide it with an opportunity to make sweeping changes throughout the industry that could have ripple effects elsewhere in the food system.
Tyson plans to hold another summit in Summer 2019 to grow its message and to bring more stakeholders into the conversation.
Precision Ag to the Rescue
The 500,000-acre pilot will use cloud-based agricultural technologies from MyFarms and Farmers Business Network (FBN), both of which collect information on agricultural production practices while protecting data privacy. Insights from the analysis of that data will inform sustainability practices at the field level.
“MyFarms and FBN were two programs that really rose to the top of what we were looking for. There are a lot of really good programs out there, but we felt like these had the greatest opportunity for scalability,” Ransome explains. “FBN will work with farmers to understand their practices and they have resources on staff who will be working with farmers to apply sustainable practices. They will provide incentives to farmers to enroll in their programs that could come in many forms like a rebate or actual cash. The incentive hasn’t been defined yet.”
MyFarms and FBN will work to enroll farmers in the initial sustainable agriculture project. FBN will provide this opportunity to its 7,600 members, who span nearly 30 million acres and who are looking for new ways to continue their commitment to sustainable agriculture, according to the startup. Farmers enrolled in MyFarms will also have the opportunity to pilot a new scientific method, based on extensive scientific research compiled by EDF, for calculating nitrogen loss specifically. Excessive nitrogen application is a primary water quality concern, contributes to agricultural GHG emissions, and is a source of lost income for farmers, according to the company.
“We view technology as an enabler, whether its crowdsourcing information while keeping it confidential or cloud-based technology that can help us make a decision faster. The opportunity is greater today to use meaningful technologies with the resources that we have and we are taking advantage of that.”