Organic battles climate change

Organic Trade Association members face the challenge head-on with innovative initiatives

Planting trees in the Peruvian Amazon, working with dairy farms to improve soil health, transforming farmland to regenerative agriculture, installing new solar panels, designing fully recyclable or compostable food packaging, reducing food waste. Ambitious, diversified, visionary projects underway by organic companies, with one common goal – to fight against climate change.  

Our food system is in a dangerous predicament. It is a significant contributor to climate change, which is one of its biggest threats. The food system accounts for approximately 20 to 30 percent of human-made greenhouse gasses emitted globally, and most of those emissions are directly tied to agriculture. Greenhouse gasses are a major cause of climate change. Climate change jeopardizes our food, water and economic security, and delayed action could have catastrophic and potentially irreversible consequences for our weather, sea levels, agricultural yields and public health.

The organic community is battling back. Throughout the supply chain, organic farmers and businesses are amping up their efforts to put into action meaningful initiatives to reduce climate change. And fortunately, organic has a head start in the battle.

“Organic farming is poised to be part of the climate change solution. Numerous studies have found that organic farming methods reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficiency in agriculture,” says Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center. 

“Just as poor land-management practices are contributors to climate change, use of good on-farm practices can actually lead to climate change mitigation. Organic farmers don’t rely on fossil-fuel intensive synthetic inputs to manage pests or increase soil fertility, and they also use farming techniques that sequester carbon in the soil. Organic practices have always been environmentally friendly, and today they are critical if we want to win the fight against climate change,” adds Shade.

Farmers and the food industry are deeply vulnerable to the disasters brought on by climate change, but the level to which they implement or encourage climate-friendly practices is dependent on multiple competing factors. Many of those factors differ in importance based on the size of the company or farm, its geographic location, the commodities being produced, and current policies and government incentives.

The Organic Center, which has already established itself as an early leader in the dissemination of information on how organic can help mitigate the causes of climate change, is devoting its annual Confluences Summit this year to this environmental crisis. The summit will directly address the current impacts of climate change and best practices within the organic sector for mitigation and adaptation, while examining methods for encouraging the adoption of strategies for fighting climate change. 

In the meantime, members of the Organic Trade Association are enthusiastically going the extra mile to put into place practices – whether on the farm, at their processing facilities or their packaging centers, or even in the jungles of Peru – to battle climate change.  

“Being good stewards of our environment and fostering the health of our soil and of our planet are the highest priorities for the organic community and our members,” notes Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “We are inspired by the extra efforts that our members are making to address this serious threat. Organic from its beginnings has been a positive force, and it is now more important than ever for the entire organic supply chain to do everything it can to implement strategies to protect our environment.”  


Reforesting the Peruvian Amazon

The almost 400 billion trees across the Amazon rainforest lock up massive amounts of carbon. Estimates are that the rainforest stores some 86 billion tons of carbon, or more than a third of all carbon stored by tropical forests worldwide. And as this incredible area keeps the bad stuff out of the air, it puts the good stuff in. More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest, earning it the title of “Lungs of the Planet.” The great Amazon rainforest is one of our strongest defenses against climate change. 

But in the last 40 years, driven by industrial activities and large-scale agriculture, almost 300,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana. 

Since 2012, National Co+op Grocers (NCG) has protected and/or planted over 1.8 million trees in the Peruvian Amazon as part of their efforts to mitigate climate change. Through an innovative project called Co+op Forest -- which is a carbon offset program within NCG’s supply chain – NCG offsets its annual CO2 emissions generated by staff travel and utilities by conserving old growth rainforest and planting new trees in the tropical rainforest.

Mandy Makinen, Advocacy Manager for NCG, explains. “Since NCG is member-owned, our priorities come from our member food co-ops. Our members direct us to advocate for a healthy environment, and one way that translates is by addressing climate change. The Co+op Forest is a holistic program for us, as it further embodies our cooperative values by empowering fair trade farmer cooperatives in Peru who practice agroforestry and do the planting and forestry work. In addition to growing trees, these farmers produce organic crops like coffee and chocolate, as well as bananas and a variety of other indigenous foods.”

NCG calculates its annual carbon emissions from staff business travel and utilities and then funds the planting or protection of a corresponding number of trees to absorb that carbon. In 2018 alone, NCG funded the planting or conservation of approximately 70,777 trees in the San Martin region of Peru to offset 1,197 tons of carbon dioxide emissions generated in 2017.

For this project, NCG partners with PUR Projet, an international company that helps connect food companies with the ecosystems they depend upon. PUR Projet linked NCG with the fair trade farmer cooperatives in Peru that plant and maintain native trees in Co+op Forest. The farmers plant the native tree seedlings, the trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow and store more carbon in their massive trunks and branches over their lifetime, and the farmers are trained in sustainable agroforestry. Protecting the native forests around their farms produces higher quality fruits, reduces erosion and improves water quality for the community.


Better soil, healthier planet

In March 2018, Danone North America launched an ambitious soil health initiative in partnership with the dairy farmers from whom they buy milk, the growers who provide feed for the cows, and soil experts and academics to build best-in-class soil health programs. The world’s largest yogurt maker pledged to commit up to $6 million for the research program over the next five years.

In Year One of the program, the company worked with 12 dairies across five states. This spanned 26,183 acres across 330 fields. This year, they’ve already expanded to almost 50,000 acres, and 80 percent of that new acreage is organic. 

“Implementing our soil health program is one way we see positive impact on helping to mitigate climate change,” says Christina Owens, Senior Director of Agriculture for Danone North America. “Globally, 57 percent of Danone’s carbon emissions are linked to agriculture, making it a key lever of reduction. We are working with farmers on low-carbon practices such as increasing productivity and efficiency, reducing energy use and improving manure management.”

“We have a responsibility to consider the impact we are making in our approach to sourcing,” says Owens. “Putting soil health at the center of how food is grown is one of the most concrete ways that food companies can work to fight against climate change.”

The program evaluates the soil on the farms of the producers the company works with. Its aim is to identify ways to help regenerate soils, looking at enhancing organic matter and soil fertility with long-term benefits such as soil carbon sequestration, reduced chemicals use, soil water-holding capacity and biodiversity. Key activities with participating grower and dairy farmer partners and third-party soil health experts include soil sampling, reviews of yield, grower engagement, data collection and analysis, first reports and field days with farmers to provide training around soil health best practices.

As a farm joins the program, the company gets visibility to the management practices used in the farm’s fields via Danone’s technical partner, EcoPractices. Each farmer then receives an annual report that helps them understand their current carbon footprint and which regenerative practices they can undertake to move further down the road to soil health. Danone partnered with Ohio State University and Cornell University the first year of the initiative to understand the specific soil impact that is possible through these practices. 

“In support of Danone North America’s mission to bring health through food to as many people as possible, it’s important that we help protect the very foundational elements that allow our business to thrive, like the soil for our dairy partners and the growers who work with them,” says Owens. “Furthermore, we can use our actions and voice to advocate for climate change policy and better policies to provide farms more tools to build their soil health management. “


Helping farmers find the solution

General Mills made a bold commitment in 2015 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions across its entire value chain – from farm to fork to landfill – by 28 percent by 2025. That commitment has meant addressing ways to become more energy efficient, reducing the use of fossil fuels, sustainably sourcing its raw ingredients, investing in green energy and a host of other actions. Those actions are paying off. Through 2018, General Mills has reduced the greenhouse gas emissions of its extended value chain by 13 percent compared to its 2010 baseline.

Earlier this year, the global food company, owner of organic brands including Annie’s, Muir Glenn and Cascadian Farm, announced its commitment to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. The Company is partnering with organic and conventional farmers, suppliers and farm advisors to drive the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices.

“One-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, and as a food company, we have to be involved,” says Shauna Sadowski, Head of Sustainability for the Natural & Organic Operating Unit at General Mills. “This is really an opportunity … the focus on regenerative agriculture will benefit all of us.”

The company is currently making a specific focus on Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where General Mills sources its oats for its products. It’s working with the non-profit organization Kiss the Ground to support farmer training and coaching through Soil Health Academies where growers learn how to increase farm profitability, build resiliency into the land, and decrease input costs using soil health practices.

Sadowski said that over 150 farmers have attended the educational sessions, and that 45 are currently enrolled in pilot projects with the program. Interest in the program has been overwhelming, and that one of the biggest challenges - a “good challenge,” she notes – is that the enthusiasm by farmers to get involved is such that the company is exploring how to bring in more advisors and partners to work with the growers.

The one-million acre commitment follows an announcement last year that General Mills would be working with Gunsmoke Farms in South Dakota to convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland to certified organic acreage by 2020. The priority in that project has been to establish cover crops, implement a rotational schedule, and rehabilitate the land. General Mills will use wheat grown on the farm to make Annie’s pasta products.

“At the end of the day, we’re looking to farmers for the solution, so we want to help farmers be the stewards of the land that they want to be,” says Sadowski. “We are trying to elevate the importance of agriculture and of famers in our efforts to fight climate change. If we get farmers to incorporate more organic and regenerative practices, we all win.” 


Clean, renewable power

Lundberg Family Farm’s famous organic rice is fueled by the sun, and the company is making a concerted effort for its operations to be solar-powered too. This year Lundberg saw a major expansion of its onsite solar energy. The company installed and deployed three new solar arrays at its Richvale, California, headquarters – expanding its onsite generation by more than 250 percent, and enabling its solar power to generate about 25 percent of the company’s electrical energy consumption.

The company estimates that the energy generated by its new solar panel system is equivalent to the energy needed to drive a mid-sized car 44 million miles. It also will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 24,660 tons over the next 25 years, which is comparable to planting more than 1 million trees. 

Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms, says the company is assessing the feasibility of installing additional solar arrays at its facility in the coming years. “Now that we have reached 25 percent self-generation, we are exploring options on how to reach 50 percent.”

The company is studying how to mitigate greenhouse gas emission throughout its operations, from the farm to finished product. It has an active Continuous Energy Improvement team that is constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce the company’s energy demand.

Lundberg explained that over the past 15 years, the company has gone through three generations of upgrades to the lighting in its facilities, each one reducing by about half the amount of electricity used compared with the preceding generation. This has been a combination of more efficient bulbs, motion detectors, more efficient reflectors, and skylights. It is also upgrading its equipment fleet with more efficient trucks, tractors and harvesters to reduce the amount of fuel consumed and emissions generated when they are running.  

“Every company and human being on the planet have a role to play in addressing climate change,” says Lundberg. “Organic food companies have already learned a lot about sustainable supply chains from the field to the finished product, and are sharing this knowledge with their consumers and other food companies. Our job in the organic industry is to continue to transparently share our stories, find new and more impactful ways to leave a lighter footprint, and provide a viable food alternative to consumers who want to impact the environment with the purchases they make.”

“The more consumers choose organic products from environmentally responsible companies, more acres can be converted to organic production, which has great potential for mitigating climate change,” adds Lundberg. 


Packaging that’s kind to the planet

Product packaging is a big deal. How the packaging is designed and how appealing it is to the consumer can determine whether the product is purchased or not. The business of packaging is huge – employing some five million people worldwide. And the potential for packaging to have a negative impact on the world environment is enormous. The raw materials used in the packaging, the manufacturing process, and its eventual disposal are critical factors in designing the most environmentally friendly packaging. 

Happy Family Organics is aggressively tackling the package issue with its recent pledge to become the first organic baby food brand in the U.S. to pledge to make its packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. 

“At Happy Family Organics, we’re far more than producers of organic baby food. We aim to be pioneers in sustainable agriculture and manufacturing practices, knowing that the health of our planet affects the long-term health of our children,” says Anne Laraway, CEO of Happy Family Organics. “These commitments are a step in the right direction, and we recognize that global, systemic change is needed to truly make an impact.”

One of Happy Family Organics’ primary packaging initiatives is developing a recyclable spouted pouch – a convenient format for parents feeding children on the go. Current pouches in-market require less energy to produce, use fewer raw materials and have lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to alternatives, but they still end up in landfills. 

The company says that currently, there is not a scalable end-of-life solution for multi-layer film, but that it is actively working with suppliers to develop solutions to improve its packaging supply chain. 

“As parents, the notion that any of our packaging ends up in landfills is not ok with us. That’s why we’re partnering with leading sustainability organizations to help scale our initiatives, and we encourage other companies with a mission to serve children to join this global commitment to create a more sustainable future for our kids,” says Laraway. 


Reducing food waste 

Consumers and businesses waste billions of dollars a year by throwing away food. But food waste isn’t just about the money. Food requires cropland, energy and labor to produce, transport and prepare it, and that land and that energy and labor are all wasted when food is discarded. When the food ends up in landfills, it takes an even bigger environmental toll. Rotting food releases the highly potent greenhouse gas of methane. Estimates are that food waste is responsible for at least 2.6 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to more than that of 37 million cars.

Organic food distributor KeHE is sponsoring a project with the Climate Collaborative to help food retailers decrease their in-store food waste. Gleaned from visits with members of the Climate Collaborative, a ten-step retail-specific toolkit has been designed from the best practices of companies to provide retailers with basic information on what they can do to lessen their carbon footprint, and save money through food waste reduction efforts.

The Climate Collaborative is an industry network launched in 2017, whose mission is to support and focus businesses in the organic and natural products sector on climate action. It includes over 50 members of the Organic Trade Association. Each month it hosts webinars, convenes virtual working groups, and shares stories of action to support companies in going deeper in their climate work.

“We all have a responsibility to make this a better planet,” says Ari Goldsmith, Executive Director of Marketing for KeHE. “Companies with any means or influence should be the leaders and take the first steps to carve the path for others, but, ultimately, we are all in this together. Our global food system relies on a healthy planet. Reducing waste, including food waste, is an integral part of KeHE’s DNA.”

“KeHE has the unique opportunity to engage and understand how our supply chain can impact retailers food waste,” adds Goldsmith. “We wanted to learn and improve -- alongside our customers -- to collaboratively work toward solutions.”


Organic on the front lines 

Organic agriculture is based on practices that not only protect environmental health, but also strive to improve it. By absorbing more carbon dioxide from the air and prohibiting the use of petroleum-based fertilizers, organic agriculture helps to reduce humans’ carbon footprint, combat climate change, and protect the land and natural resources for future generations.

All along the supply chain, and not only at the farm level, organic companies have joined the fight to save the planet and help reduce the causes of climate change.

“The organic community and our members have never been afraid of hard work and of fighting the good fight,” says the Organic Trade Association’s Batcha. “We choose to be organic because we want to produce the cleanest products in the cleanest and most sustainable way. And we choose to be in this fight against climate change because of the desire to protect our world and the consumers that we serve. Organic is a positive force.”

Maggie McNeil is Director of Media Relations for the Organic Trade Association (mmcneil@ota.com). //