Are food companies influencing fertilizer use?

Food retailers are becoming increasingly interested in how the products they sell on their shelves are produced.  |  File photo

Retailers are catering to consumer backlash on agricultural inputs,
and growers are being told to produce more with less

Many people in agriculture, including many farmers, remain skeptical about sustainable farming.

Many say the phrase is meaningless, or call it a fad that will amount to nothing.

Brian Arnall isn’t one of those people. In October, Arnall, an Oklahoma State University soil scientist, spent two hours communicating with a representative of Walmart, answering questions about wheat production in Oklahoma.

“They (Walmart) want the ins and outs. Inputs in, inputs out. (Nutrient) losses here and losses there,” said Arnall, who spoke at the Canola Discovery Forum, an agronomy conference held late October in Winnipeg.

Walmart is interested in how crops are produced because the company is committed to sustainable sourcing of food.

As part of that commitment, Walmart has partnered with organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, a massive environmental group, to “produce more food with fewer resources.”

“Working with supplier companies … we (Walmart) will provide increasing visibility over the next 10 years to agricultural yields, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage, and drive adoption of best practices in sustainable agriculture,” Walmart says on its website.

When the largest grocer in the world makes such statements, it’s a sign that the farming practice of chasing highest possible crop yields at all costs is over, said Arnall, who specializes in precision nutrient management at OSU.

“The mindset of maximizing yield without regards (for environmental or social consequences) is not going to work.

“We cannot maintain that thought process as an agricultural community going into the future. Not because of economics, not because of crop production, because of politics.”

Mario Tenuta, University of Manitoba soil scientist, agreed crop production will need to change. But the philosophical shift away from maximum yield is just underway.

“It will rather be the most economical yield considering price of fertilizers, and impact on environment and ecology will be the goal.”

Two major forces will push farmers to think differently about fertilizer and yield: government regulators and end users, Arnall said.

U.S. states like California and Florida have introduced restrictions on fertilizer use, because the public will no longer accept cropland nutrients flowing into lakes, rivers or oceans.

In Canada, the federal government plans to introduce a carbon tax, which is expected to drive up the cost of nitrogen and penalize farmers who use excessive amounts of fertilizer.

Regulators will likely impose change, but Arnall thinks corporations like Walmart and General Mills will ultimately have more influence.

“They’re all chasing right now for that sustainability model,” he said. “Companies are using that (sustainability) to sell…. One guy (a corporate rep) actually said we want good stories.”

Grocery chains and food companies may crave narratives around sustainable ag, but they also want metrics.

“How much nitrogen per ton of wheat produced?” Arnall said, recalling conversations with sustainability reps. “How much phosphorus was applied versus how much was removed?”

Adopting a mindset of ‘more with less’, or more yield with the same amount of fertilizer, could be challenging for many Canadian producers.

Over the last decade or so, rates of nitrogen applied to wheat, canola and corn has increased.

“This is because genetic and agronomic management improvements result in capitalizing on greater N additions to produce more yield,” Tenuta said.

Soil scientists and agronomists across North America believe the 4R nutrient stewardship program will help end the ‘more is better’ philosophy.

The 4Rs stand for:

  • right source
  • rght rate
  • right time
  • right place

Arnall said this sort of nutrient stewardship is inevitable because buyers of grain and the food industry will make it happen.

The only question is whether they will use a carrot or a stick.

“Are they going to incentivize… or will there be dockages applied?” he said. “I have a feeling they’re going to first try the carrot before the stick… I’m hoping the carrot comes first.”

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