Sustainable sourcing: Retailers and food producers take on fertilizer pollution


A grain farmer in Illinois sprays a fertilizer and herbicide mix on his field.

Bill Meler/Flickr

The toxic algae scare in Toledo this past summer really drove home the problem of fertilizer pollution in this country, right through the faucets of half a million unsuspecting Ohio residents. Don’t drink the water, officials warned. Don’t even touch it.

We rely on farmers every day for our well-being. But when producing food for a growing population threatens to deprive us of water, another life essential, it’s time to rethink the way we feed America.

That’s why I’m so excited about Environmental Defense Fund’s new Sustainable Sourcing Initiative. Our goal in this collaborative effort is to engage every player in America’s grain supply chain to solve what has been an intractable problem for decades.

Large brands rally in support

The good news is, we’re not starting from scratch.

As part of its commitment to slash greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain, Walmart last year asked its top suppliers to submit plans on how they would source nutrient-efficient grains to deliver real environmental improvements. 

Fifteen food companies responded, and many turned to EDF for help in developing and implementing those plans – including Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, General Mills, and The Coca-Cola Company, which works in partnership with World Wildlife Fund.

Now we’re drilling deeper into the supply chain, collaborating with agribusinesses such as United Suppliers to help farmers meet the food companies’ new demands. A member-owned wholesaler, the Iowa-based company provides agricultural products and services to some 700 grower cooperatives and retailers across the United States and Canada - so its footprint has impact.

Scaling up – by 10 million acres

Over the past six months, I’ve worked closely with United Suppliers to develop a sustainability program that will be rolled out to farmers by the company’s network of well-trained retailer owners and expert staff.

They’ve committed to enrolling some 10 million acres in the fertilizer efficiency program by 2020, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 5 million metric tons and help to improve water quality. Talk about scaling up!

The problem with fertilizers

Fertilizer, of course, is necessary for achieving high crop yields. But its inefficient use contributes to climate instability and causes dead zones that contaminate water supplies and kill millions of fish each year.

In the U.S., we have tried to regulate our way to a solution for 40 years with far too limited results. Dead zones still persist in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie.

And greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which already account for 8 percent of total emissions in the United States, are likely to grow as the sector ramps up to feed a growing population.

So for the past decade, EDF has worked with grower networks in several states to test and prove sustainable methods that help farmers become more productive while minimizing nutrient losses to water and air – losses that are costly to both the farmers’ wallets and the environment.

We’ve managed to reduce nutrient losses by an average of 25 percent on half a million acres while increasing or maintaining yields. Now we’re ready to expand – and fast.

Farmers on board

Farmers are enthusiastic about increasing the supply of more sustainable grains because they want to be good stewards of the environment.

As my friend Brent Bible, who farms 2,500 acres in Indiana, says: “Fertilizer is the most expensive input for farmers, so it makes good business sense for us to maximize its efficiency.”

The farm is where it all starts, but we need every link in the supply chain to play an active role and to embed sustainability into the core of their business. Our new initiative stands ready to help.

You might also enjoy:
Suzy Friedman

Suzy Friedman

Suzy, EDF's sustainable agriculture director, leads our work to advance economically viable initiatives to improve water quality and ecosystem resilience through collaboration with agriculture.

Get new posts by email

We'll deliver a daily digest to your inbox.

RSS RSS feed


First, unbelievable; and second, what a great way to achieve environmental stewardship. Instead of forcing “well meaning”, but probably “completely unworkable" regulations on agriculture, farmers can instead respond to market forces. If farmers want to sell their products through the largest grocer in the nation they can become more sustainable. This is nothing short of refreshing.

The most exciting thing about this process is that agribusiness is taking notice and is already reacting to the market forces. If I were a farmer would want a partner like United Supplies looking out for best interests. I congratulate United Suppliers on their "forward thinking".