It’s Good to Know Where You Stand. Even if it’s Nowhere.

Suzy Friedman

Image by Yuma Hori/Flickr

Not long ago, the website The Daily Meal published its annual list of the 50 Most Powerful People in Food. Not a single environmental organization that works on sustainable agriculture made the list. Not World Wildlife Fund, not The Nature Conservancy, not Environmental Defense Fund. 

Why? Because generally speaking, people in the food and agriculture worlds haven’t yet fully understood that the issue of sustainability is critical to the long term prospects of food production and environmental health. 

By 2050, Earth will be home to be 9 billion people, and the planet’s resources are already stretched to feed the 7 billion here today. And you can’t, given the threats of global warming and environmental degradation, feed those two billion additional mouths simply by using more water, more fertilizer and clearing more forest for crops.

In fact, the farmers of tomorrow will have to grow more food with less water, less nutrients and less damaging impact on climate, water, and habitat.

Meeting this goal is possible, but only through major changes in the way farmers and agribusiness do business. Many of the people and companies on the Daily Meal list — Walmart, Monsanto, Tyson, Cargill, Pepsi, McDonalds and ADM, not to mention USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack — have the clout to help that transformation along.

Much of the progress we make, at least initially, is likely to include supply chain management, economic efficiency and smarter regulation. This means building sustainability into the business decisions and purchasing policies of major food and agriculture companies so that it’s clear, to farmers and their suppliers, that there is real demand for highly productive, environmentally sound production practices.

For example, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest grocer, is also the nation’s largest customer for organic foods. And Mike Duke, its CEO, has committed the company to purchasing more locally grown and sustainably grown produce.

When the nation’s largest food retailers support using nutrients more efficiently and managing soil better, farmers who follow that lead benefit because growing more food with less fertilizer and water and tilling of the soil saves money, which increases revenue. In addition, it opens up huge opportunities for innovators to create the tools and technologies that make it easier to, say, apply nutrients more precisely. 

Still, even as big food retailers and restaurateurs and others increasingly emphasize sustainability in how we grow our food, the Top 50 will also need the advice and expertise of environmental NGOs. It’s our job to help to assure that as agriculture evolves, it not only produces enough food to feed the world’s growing population, but also sustains the natural resources on which we all depend.

It’s Environmental Defense Fund’s job, and that of our key partners, to make sure that the vital element of sustainability doesn’t get lost in the rush to greater productivity. If we are successful, then maybe next year a few of us will make it to the Top 50 list, too.