I grew up in a small farming town and remember that my childhood friends always seemed to invite me over for sleepovers when the next day coincided with processing chickens, baling hay, or some other event that required as many capable hands as possible. It didn’t dawn on me until later in life that it wasn’t a coincidence. Still, I would not trade those days for a lifetime of mornings in the city. On the farm, I grew to value hard work, see the direct connection between work and food, and learn that nothing went to waste on the farm. Those lessons still resonate and have been reinforced frequently over the course of my 20-year career in sustainability. I now realize the seeds of sustainability were planted early in my life, during those long days on the farm.
Think Global & Act Local
Farmers have been ‘thinking globally’ and ‘acting locally’ since the beginning of modern agriculture. Waste management, soil conservation, energy efficiency, animal welfare, and pest management are the ultimate examples of ‘acting locally’ to solve problems. The hands-on work of farming often occurs right outside the back door; it doesn’t get any more local. At the same time, global influences such as weather patterns, access to new markets, and the price of fertilizer have long since been recognized as important issues. Recently, however, the agriculture industry has recognized just how much their local actions can affect global issues.
Challenges are Opportunities
Global sustainability challenges such as climate change, water security, pollution, and topsoil loss pose increasing risks to our environment. Access to safe drinking water is still uncertain for 29% of the world’s population1. Greenhouse gas (GHG) levels continue to rise in our atmosphere, with carbon dioxide levels now above 400 PPM2. Over 6,400 million metric tons of plastic waste has been generated since 1950 and only 9% of that was recycled. Over the last 150 years, we’ve lost 50% of our topsoil globally. Given these looming issues, all individuals and organizations need to take immediate action.
For farmers, taking action through energy efficiency, waste prevention, and nutrient management is not only good for the planet but often has a healthy economic return. A popular theme in the sustainability field today is the concept of the Circular Economy, where waste is avoided by finding new value streams for by-products and materials that could be viewed as waste. Farmers literally invented the game, long before the term Circular Economy was coined. On the farm, extracting every ounce of value from waste is necessary for success. The mindset of the farmer is perfect for capitalizing on global sustainability challenges and finding opportunities.
Consumers are paying closer attention to those global sustainability challenges than ever. Information flows rapidly and awareness is at an all-time high. The image of a plastic straw stuck in a turtle’s nose changed the foodservice industry quickly and irreversibly. The notion that plastic litter will outweigh all fish biomass by 2050 made drastic action inevitable. While climate change, water security, and waste have been important environmental issues for decades, the severity of the situation has reached a tipping point. The vast majority of consumers around the world now factor environmental issues into purchasing decisions and want companies to do more (81% in one study3). In addition to consumer behavior, mainstream media coverage intensified regulatory pressures, and corporate strategy is driving large scale changes in every industry, including agriculture.
The trend for being more environmentally conscious has coincided with the growing popularity of a healthy lifestyle and dietary changes. The number of vegans in the UK increased by 400% between 2014 and 2019 and the reasons are often linked to animal welfare and the environment4 (74% of consumers in the UK say animal welfare is important5). While the overall percent of vegans and vegetarians may be relatively low, changing patterns of consumption are real and significant. Sales of vegan and vegetable-based foods (including meat substitutes) increased by 25% between 2018 and 20196, while meat sales are flat or declining across Europe.
The agriculture sector is responsible for 40% of the man-made methane emissions around the world, but anaerobic digestion is becoming more popular in response to that challenge. There are over 20,000 biogas plants around Europe set to reach over $75 billion USD in revenue by 20267. The use of biogas plants to generate electricity and heat from waste is a perfect example of how the agriculture industry can turn challenges into opportunities with compelling environmental and economic results.
Farmers have also adapted to sustainability trends by adapting their production to meet consumer demands. Concerns over animal welfare may push some consumers towards plant-based foods. However, the industry also has worked to support animal welfare certifications to address those concerns.
The agricultural industry has taken notice of these trends and responded with adaptability and innovation. The growth in plant-based meat has been facilitated by flexibility in the agriculture supply chain. Innovation is also being seen with new GIS technologies, robotics, chemicals, and sensors that measure everything from harvest quality to genetic variability. Farmers have been able to do more with less and can feed the planet with higher productivity than ever. Trends like urban and vertical farming can help supplement the gains seen by more traditional innovations. With the world’s population reaching as high as 10 billion people by 2050, the agriculture industry is going to keep on innovating.
Diversey’s Deosan agriculture business can help with antibiotic reduction, efficiency, residue control, animal welfare and sustainability. Diversey has found that environmental stewardship translates to good business. Energy efficiency, water conservation, waste prevention and reduction of GHGs are not only good for the health of the planet but they also invariably translate into economic benefits.
For instance, when Diversey partnered with WWF on a pledge to reduce GHG emissions, the economic benefit was calculated to be a $31 million payback8. That’s one of the reasons that we tripled our commitment shortly thereafter9. Eliminating waste in our operations has benefits beyond environmental improvements and financial payback. Commitment to environmental stewardship, waste reductions, and finding efficiency across all operations starts as a series of projects, matures to a mindset, and eventually becomes part of an organizations culture. Employees feel better working for a company that is a positive force and trying to make the world a better place.
Operational excellence across Diversey’s facilities goes beyond quality, efficiency, and productivity. Our approach also includes a strong focus on finding ways to continually improve the sustainability performance in our buildings. Diversey’s Facilitators for Life goals call for 10% reductions in energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste; and a 5% reduction in water by 2025. These goals are normalized by product volume and will use 2018 as the new baseline. For more information about our commitment to environmental stewardship and social responsibility, read our latest sustainability report.