Skip to main content

Select your location

Sustainable Agriculture Initiatives: How to Gain Buy-In for the Long Game

Paul Hunter
Landscape view of field crop

Sustainability has been a hot topic in recent years. Too often, though, public conversations about sustainability devolve into arguments about economics versus environmentalism. Agriculture businesses need to concern themselves with the land as well as maintaining their revenue – and many feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.

By getting more specific about what “sustainability” really means, agriculture businesses can make decisions to address the needs of customers and the communities they serve. So what is sustainability? And how does this concept help the agriculture industry envision a better future?

The three pillars of sustainability

When you hear sustainability or sustainable agriculture, you might immediately think of the environmental impact. This is, of course, a crucial aspect of society’s current mindset. As the world experiences extreme weather events, catastrophic wildfires, and other acute symptoms of a changing climate, the environment has become a key issue. But this axis is only one of many required to build a path to sustainability.

1. Society

When discussing how to build sustainable societies, the real conversation is about equity. The agriculture industry must address the long-term sustainability of our sector by first leveling the playing field.

How can we create equal opportunities for marginalized farmers? How can we expand our social structures to lift agricultural workers out of poverty rather than perpetuating cycles of poverty? How are marginalized farmers included in the decision-making process?

2. Environment

To thrive in the long term, the global agriculture system needs to be as efficient as possible while serving a group of stakeholders that includes the planet. Even further than minimizing impact, can the industry find ways to help the planet heal?

Biodiversity and soil health are major areas where agricultural companies can make significant impacts in the short term. Crop rotation, cover cropping, reduced tillage, and similar strategies make a notable difference in keeping the environment healthy.

Aside from tending to the land, the industry must also consider the impact of carbon. Reducing fossil fuel usage in agricultural equipment and adopting carbon sequestration technology are direct approaches, but agroforestry and cover crops are effective approaches in their own right. Working to reduce a farm’s carbon footprint isn’t one-size-fits-all. Combining approaches to find a balance between function and preservation of the environment is key.

3. Economy

Finally, agricultural practices must be economically sustainable. An agricultural business is still a business, which means profitability is a factor. Losing money isn’t sustainable for any operation. But for an industry as essential to society as agriculture, failure isn’t an option. So finding ways to make the system economically sound is essential.

Economic equity is often overlooked, but is absolutely essential when it comes to creating resilient and sustainable agriculture systems/value chains. As the industry addresses limited access to capital, language barriers, and disparities in land ownership that keep marginalized farmers from achieving true economic competitiveness, we must ensure that future generations will have opportunities to thrive. In turn, when everybody is afforded the same opportunities and are involved across the entire agriculture landscape, the entire agricultural economy can benefit for generations to come.

How to get businesses on board with sustainable agriculture

Often, just the concept of sustainability is attractive enough to get companies and buyers on board. But actually taking action and applying these principles can be more challenging. So how can agriculture companies get employees and boards to buy-in on sustainable initiatives?

1. Play the long game

Move where the puck is heading. The future of food is decarbonized and fossil free. Consumers increasingly desire sustainable food, government regulation is increasingly carbon conscious, and the price of carbon just peaked in Europe at £100 per metric ton. For agribusiness, the future of food takes the form of carbon credit enablement and low-carbon agricultural practices. Growers will increasingly turn to carbon credits to create a revenue stream, especially as the value of carbon credits continues to increase. Growers can also earn a premium price when selling low-carbon crops but only if they have the data to prove it. Support growers you serve by helping them access the data they need to earn carbon credits and prove their crop was truly grown with low-carbon practices. Earning a carbon credit, or “carbon farming” as some growers call it, requires growers to capture years of copious data points. So your business must ensure growers have access to the data they generate through doing business with you if those data points are required. Your long-term strategies for data, cloud and technology should be conscious of this.

Acknowledge these realities and develop a clear vision for how your agribusiness plays in the future of food. What would you want The Wall Street Journal to be saying about your company in 5, 10, or 20? Write a dream headline and get your team aligned on where you’re heading – and what you might need to sacrifice in the short term to get there.

2. Find how sustainability can multiply your business

Work with a group of stakeholders to map out your sustainability efforts across two axes: the potential sustainability impacts and the potential business impacts. To make this effort most successful, your stakeholder group should represent a broad range of backgrounds to ensure unique perspectives are brought to the table. Include representatives from all lines of business and functions. More diverse thinking improves your chances of internal alignment because everyone has a seat at the table from the beginning.

Your sustainability strategy should help enable your other corporate strategies. For example, if you are a logistics company, shifting to an electric fleet will create both long-term savings but also help differentiate from competitors by being able to be a lower-carbon delivery option for your clients.

Work together to find efficiencies and advantages between your sustainability strategy and other strategies.

3. Choose your top initiatives and get started

A thorough analysis of your sustainability initiatives serves as a north star to guide your company toward an ideal future. Choose a few of the initiatives that provide both a high business value and a high sustainability impact and get started on those. Don’t forget, running a cost/benefit analysis on your sustainability measures is entirely appropriate. At the end of the day, you’re still making business decisions.

Getting stakeholders to adopt a long view of your goals is a challenge – especially when you’re just starting. So include them in the process and adopt a shared goal to pursue first.

4. Engaging the community of your business

Focusing on the stakeholders that your organization touches - the farmers and consumers ultimately purchasing your product - is critical and should be your true guiding voice. How will your sustainability measures impact them? Take time to consider their wants and needs before starting new initiatives.

Benefits of sustainability for farmers

Farmers and agronomists have always been stewards of the land. Most spend their time looking for better ways to take care of the environment with sustainable practices. For good reason, too.

When farmers adopt soil health measures, yield improvements often follow - with a delay. Crop rotation, cover cropping and reduced tillage are common sustainability recommendations from agronomists. These measures have an impact on soil health, which leads to larger yields and more revenue in the long-term.

Sustainability measures can also reduce costs – another topic farmers care deeply about. If they’re not paying for fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, they’re left with more money in their pockets at the end of the day.

Benefits of sustainability for consumers

Adopting sustainability practices makes products more attractive to consumers. The market is shifting, and consumers will often choose products from sustainable farms over other options, even at a higher cost.

Consumers care about all three pillars of sustainability. They want a better outcome for the planet, to support marginalized farmers and to improve their personal health. That means agricultural businesses with sustainable practices are more appealing and more likely to connect with consumers.

The pressure is on

The time to implement sustainable agricultural practices is now. Your business can help create a better future for our society, planet, and economy. Kin + Carta can help.

Share this article

Show me all