The food and agriculture sectors are in a unique position to impact all aspects of sustainability: environment, economic and social. Agriculture contributes 29% of all greenhouse gas emission around the world, and it accounts for 70% of fresh water use and 90% of all land use.

“The agriculture sector needs to be a leader,” said Siobhan Kelly, agribusiness economist, food systems and safety division, Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “It needs to step up and demonstrate that it sees its negative contribution and is on board to set targets, reach those targets and be held accountable. The agri-food sector more than any other sector has such a widespread outreach in terms of the overall health, wealth and well-being of people globally, so it really does need to be the leader in terms of what types of innovations, technologies and the multi-stakeholder approach it brings to the table.”

It’s important though for companies to identify for their own enterprises where they can make the greatest impact.

Conagra Brands, for example, assesses its sustainability impact every year to prioritize where the company can really move the needle. Topics such as packaging and sustainable sourcing are high on the list.

“We map that against consumer behaviors and what they really want from us,” said Katya Hantel, senior director of sustainability, Conagra Brands, Chicago. “And we look at how can we insert sustainability to meet their behavior.”

On the sustainable sourcing front, Conagra Brands is a member of US Farmers and Ranchers in Action (USFRA), a coalition of farmers, ranchers and food and agriculture stakeholders creating sustainable food systems. Conagra is a co-developer and endorser of the USFRA’s Decade of Ag Vision, which outlines an agricultural system that is resilient, restorative, economically viable and climate-smart. The plan aims to achieve that vision by restoring the environment through regenerative agriculture, investing in the next generation of agriculture systems, and strengthening the United States’ social and economic framework through agriculture.

[Related reading: Effective sustainability plans don't live in silos]

“It’s an exciting cross-industry movement to tackle climate change and soil health very broadly with great partners,” Ms. Hantel said.

Conagra contributes to this vision with its Birds Eye Good Agricultural Practices Program. These include supporting soil health through crop rotation, cover crops and minimizing tillage; reducing water consumption; reducing fertilizer application; filtering water runoff and preserving ecosystem biodiversity, and supporting healthy pollinator populations by providing farmers access to bee habitat data.

Campbell Snacks, a division of Camden, NJ-based Campbell Soup Co., has also identified its supply chain as the place where it can make the biggest impact on climate, with a focus on agricultural ingredients and the packaging used to make its products.

“Last year, we announced our commitment to set a science-based target and have been working to baseline our scope 3 emissions; these are the emissions from activities in our supply chain,” explained George Vindiola, vice president of R&D for Campbell Snacks. “We will be setting new emissions reduction goals in our operations and our supply chain in 2022 that are in line with the latest climate science.”

Campbell Snacks just made the commitment that 100% of its packaging will be recyclable or industrially compostable by 2030, and it will also increase its use of post-consumer recycled content in its PET bottles, with a target of 25%.

As the nation’s second largest baking company, Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga., has determined it can make the most significant progress in its operational footprint.

“We can make progress through technological upgrades in real-time metering, reducing energy and water consumption and allowing us to react quicker,” said Margaret Ann Marsh, vice president, sustainability and environmental, Flowers Foods.

The company uses partnerships with the US Department of Energy’s Energy Star and Better Plants programs to facilitate meeting its goals. In fact, the company’s facility in Lynchburg, Va., was recognized this year by the US Department of Energy with a 2021 Better Project Award. The Department of Energy awarded it to Flowers for successfully converting the facility into an energy-efficient, organic bakery.

Upgrades Flowers made include a high-efficiency oven and heat recovery system, a new refrigeration system that saves on water and energy, an energy-efficient air compressor, and the installation of LED lights throughout the facility. These upgrades and more are expected to reduce annual energy by 22% and water consumption by 64%.

While Grupo Bimbo’s sustainability plan encompasses environmental, human, nutrition and community benefits, its impact on the environment encompasses its entire value chain. From the sourcing of raw ingredients to a sustainable bakery plant to cleaner distribution and low-impact packaging, the company looks for any opportunity to improve its environmental footprint in a way that is a value-add to its business.

In 2020, Grupo Bimbo was able to report that 90% of its packaging is recyclable, 53 of its plants have accomplished zero waste to landfill, a 9% reduction in emissions since 2019, 23.9% more distribution vehicles with alternative fuels and 80% of its electricity is coming from renewable sources. The company continues to reduce its water usage and has converted a third of its refrigerants to natural alternatives. It is also investing in the sustainable agriculture for wheat, maize and potatoes through pilot programs.

The new way of sustainable business requires coordinated efforts throughout an entire company, with all teams working to make a difference. It requires companies to look beyond the environmental impact to the human impact.

“Consumers care about where their food comes from and how it’s made,” Ms. Marsh said. “This drives our commitment to not only operate efficiently, reducing waste and sourcing ingredients responsibly but also providing a safe and ethical workplace operated with integrity.”

Those companies that do will be rewarded with not just loyalty from the next generation of consumers but also a loyal workforce and more sustainable world.

This article is an excerpt from the October 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Sustainability, click here.