What Does Sustainable Agriculture Mean for Grain Growers and Ag Retailers?

For farmers and agribusinesses, the idea of sustaining farmland for future use is not new. For decades, they have understood the need to care for the land to protect their livelihood and the environment. But now, people outside the industry are paying attention to how crops are grown, as an increasing number of food companies, grain buyers, and consumers seek ingredients grown using sustainable practices.

The phrase sustainable agriculture has gone from buzzword to mainstream terminology as many food, pet food, and biofuel businesses aim for low emission or zero net carbon targets. It means that sustainability in agriculture is here to stay — whether that’s through companies setting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals, as a part of climate-smart initiatives, or by consumers demanding greener products. And with increased attention on agricultural practices are increased market opportunities for agribusinesses and grain growers. But what is sustainable agriculture, and is it any different from what farmers are doing already?


Sustainable ag vs. regenerative ag vs. conservation programs

If we think about types of agricultural practices, conservation programs, regenerative agriculture, and sustainable agriculture probably come to mind. Many of the practices farmers use fit into all these approaches, so the difference between conservation, regenerative ag, and sustainable ag can be a little unclear.

An increasing number of food companies, grain buyers, and consumers are seeking ingredients grown using sustainable practices.

A simple way of looking at regenerative ag vs. sustainable ag is that regenerative agriculture aims to restore the land — for example, improving the organic matter and carbon content of the soil, increasing biodiversity, or improving water retention and quality — and typically has a finite goal. In contrast, sustainable agriculture is a continual practice that aims to restore, if necessary, and then permanently maintain natural resources to ensure the land is viable for future generations.

Conservation programs can, in practice, be regenerative, sustainable, or a blend of the two, as they can be both restorative and protective. For example, the USDA conservation reserve program (CRP), which has been running for more than 35 years, has successfully reduced soil erosion, decreased nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, sequestered greenhouse gases, restored over 3 million acres of wetlands, and benefited wildlife.

Similarly, agricultural practices don’t have to be exclusively regenerative or sustainable. Cover crops are a good example of this. Planting cover crops can improve soil health and water quality (regenerative), but they can also reduce erosion and nutrient loss and increase drought resistance (sustainable). Both practices are desirable in some situations.


Sustainable agriculture isn’t just about protecting the environment

The main difference between sustainable and regenerative agriculture is the human component. Regenerative ag generally focuses on improving the land — although it can have economic benefits — while sustainable ag considers economic and social factors as well. For example, farmer profitability and fair treatment and wages for farm workers are part of sustainable agriculture. If we consider the USDA’s definition, sustainable agriculture not only satisfies human food and fiber needs, improves environmental quality, and uses resources efficiently, but it also sustains the economic viability of farm operations and enhances the quality of life of farmers and society.

Most sustainable agriculture definitions include environment, economy, and society components, although the full definition can vary. If a business has a goal to source sustainably grown ingredients, they likely have their own standards for which ingredients are considered sustainably produced. For example, Nestlé and Unilever have their own definitions and guidelines for sourcing sustainable products. Nestlé is aiming for 100% of their key ingredients to be produced sustainably by 2030, and they source ingredients according to their Responsible Sourcing Standard. Unilever also has a goal of 100% sustainable sourcing of their key agricultural crops, and they have their own sustainable agriculture code and regenerative agriculture principles that they introduced to improve the sustainability of farming operations from which they source ingredients.


The sustainable ag market is ripe for the picking

The increased interest in sustainability in agriculture by food companies, the biofuel industry, and consumers is a growing opportunity for ag businesses and farmers. The emerging market for sustainably grown grain is a good example. For food businesses looking to “green the food chain,” sustainably grown grain meets their desire — and their customers’ — for lower carbon emissions, reduced pollution, and healthier grains.

Agribusinesses can find opportunities in the sustainable grain market by helping their customers implement sustainable practices and improving their farms’ carbon footprints.

Agribusinesses can find opportunities in the sustainable grain market by helping their customers implement sustainable practices and improving their farms’ carbon footprints. For example, they can offer premiums for seed, inputs, and crop protection practices that help reduce carbon emissions and consult on precision farming and carbon credit programs. Ag retailers also have the opportunity to become the knowledge experts on government grants and other resources — like the USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities — that incentivize farmers to use sustainable agriculture practices, helping to support their customers and increase their business prospects.

For grain growers, sustainable agriculture practices have positive impacts on not only their land and crops but also the price of the grain they grow sustainably. As more companies set goals that require sourcing sustainably grown ingredients, it’s conceivable that premiums, new market opportunities, or carbon credits will be offered for sustainable grain. As previously mentioned, there are also financial incentives available for farmers to switch to sustainable agriculture practices.


Sustainable practices aren’t new, but using more of them might be

For grain growers who are looking to enter the sustainable grain market, it’s likely they’re already doing some sustainable agriculture practices, given the overlap between conservation, regenerative ag, and sustainable ag. But there may be additional opportunities for them to reduce their carbon emissions or use resources more efficiently. Some examples of practices that improve the sustainability of agriculture are listed in the graphic below.


What does the future look like for sustainable grain?

According to global research by SkyQuest, growing consumer demand is predicted to drive the sustainable agriculture market past $28.53 billion by 2030 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.9% from 2022 to 2030. And as the sustainable agriculture market grows, data and technology will need to grow with it.

Greening the food supply chain requires efficient methods to connect grain buyers with sustainable grain growers, and buyers will want to be assured that the grain they’re buying really was grown sustainably. Accurate and dependable measurement and management tools will be needed to track carbon footprints and manage offsets.

Growing consumer demand is predicted to drive the sustainable agriculture market past $28.53 billion by 2030 at a CAGR of 9.9% from 2022 to 2030.

Agribusinesses can help green the food chain by encouraging more farmers to convert to — or use more — sustainable agriculture practices and ultimately increase the acres of land farmed sustainably. Data technology can be used to help ag businesses identify customers engaging in sustainable practices to allow them to target their sustainable products and services marketing efforts. But that data will need to be accurate and reliable and from credible sources for targeting to work and be useful for ag retailers.


Protecting our planet and our people

Agriculture is moving toward a more sustainable future, one that includes supporting the people at the heart of it. Sustainable agriculture has many definitions, but ultimately, it’s ensuring we look after the environment, farmland, and community now — and in the future — to ensure we have the resources we need for generations to come. For grain growers and agribusinesses, sustainable agriculture opens the door for more market opportunities by building upon the practices they’ve been investing in for years anyway. It’s a win-win for everyone.


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