COLUMBUS — Everyone has their own definition, but is seems today that everyone has a definition. That is one thing that can be said about the buzzword of the past decade: “Sustainability.”
During the Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium Dec. 17 at the 4-H Center in Columbus, three farm and food companies made their best effort at explaining what this word means for their business, and their customers.
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The panel consisted of Jody Longshore, director of corporate responsibility for Cargill, Mark Eastham, manager of sustainability for Walmart’s Food Business, and James Eichhorst, director of state government relations for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).
Eastham said Walmart tries to provide products that are sustainable for the environment and for people. But there are a couple limiting factors.
For one — people who shop at Wal-Mart often are in a hurry.
“When customers come into Walmart and they see all the products on our shelves … they don’t have very much time to make a choice based on sustainability,” he said.
A typical mother shopping at Wal-Mart may only spend five seconds before she’s made her decision and is moving on, Eastham said.
Another factor is the limited involvement the store has with its products — functioning primarily as a retail store of goods that someone else produces. Eastham said about 80 percent of the environmental impact of the products comes from the suppliers — not the store — although the store tries to work with suppliers to help support sustainability efforts.
Eastham said sustainability makes good business sense for Walmart, because it helps the company reduce energy use, and operating costs, so it can increase its outputs. The company is billed as the world’s largest retailer with 10,000 retail units, and employs 2.2 million people.
Cargill, while certainly a smaller company, is a major international supplier of food, agriculture, financial and industrial products and services. Cargill employs 142,000 people across these fields, in 67 countries.
Longshore said Cargill defines sustainability with profit in mind.
“It’s really about growing more, more efficiently” he said. “We want to produce the biggest yields possible, doing it as efficiently as possible.”
He said the company works to help farmers be more efficient — sometimes using less product — or using more product but with less waste.
A big consideration, he said, is that “sustainability” needs to be something that works, and that doesn’t cause unintended consequences.
“We don’t want to put something in place that’s going to (hinder) inputs and outputs,” he said.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization is an advocacy trade organization for “biotechnology,” or “technology based on science.” Those technologies include healthcare, agriculture, industry and environment.
Eichhorst, the company’s director of state government relations, did not mince words when he explained how important “profitability” is to being sustainable.
“If you’re not profitable, you’re not in business; if you’re not in business, you’re not sustainable,” he said.
Dale Minyo, the agriculture broadcaster who moderated the forum, said it’s important to be aware of other people’s definitions of sustainability, so producers can “understand what other people are thinking.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, includes environmental and social concerns, as well as nutrition needs in its definition — alongside the obvious economic and profit interests.
Eastham, in his closing comments, said Wal-Mart wants to tell farmers’ story.
“We need to work with you all to tell the story — the appropriate story — and the best story, and the story that makes the most sense and is (in) the truest form,” he said.
The company wants farmers to be efficient, and to sell their products 50-100 years into the future
“Walmart is not ever going to attempt to prescribe any methods to you all, because you all know how to produce what you produce the best way that you can,” he said. “We really want to support you all in producing the most efficiently that we can.”