Farmers across the United States have been adopting sustainable farming practices at a rapid rate over the last few years. It is estimated that as of today, half of farmers in the US are using methods that could be considered more sustainable. The most common objective of these practices is the reduction of fertilizer use, whilst achieving the same or better crop yields. Planting cover crops during the off-season, for example, can reduce the need for nitrogen and increase water retention. This means less nitrogen runoff into the water system and can save farmers substantial amounts of money.
While the benefits of these practices are clear, most farmers do not adopt them independently. The majority are encouraged to act by food companies or retailer cooperative groups. The SUSTAIN program stands out as a notable example of one such catalyst organization. SUSTAIN was created by an industry group, United Suppliers, and the Environmental Defense Fund. It gives farmers advisory support and technological and best practice information. The program has been a huge success and now covers approximately 30% of the US food and beverage industry with continued growth likely.
This story, while certainly noteworthy for the agricultural industry, is not isolated. This structure has emerged as one of the primary ways in which sustainability progress is being driven throughout the private sector, in countless industries. The structure is this: An industry group, often partnered with an NGO, creates a program that distributes sustainability resources and knowledge throughout the industry’s supply chain. Member companies frequently include carrots and sticks to ensure adoption by suppliers. This is how many companies, particularly SMEs, are being encouraged and enabled to adopt sustainability practices. Farmers are just one example.
While this trend is a key driver of sustainability progress in the private sector, it is worth asking questions regarding its medium to long-term implications. Is sustainability truly being ingrained in the culture of the adopter if it is on some level mandated by buyers or other industry players? If this pressure were to dissolve, would they continue to progress? Despite these questions, this trend’s positive results, in the short term at least, are worthy of the invested resources.