US feed production, ingredients graded in food sustainability report

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/ kchungtw
© GettyImages/ kchungtw
Feed production and ingredient growth are among the elements considered in a recent report card given to food companies regarding meat production sustainability practices, says campaign director.

Mighty Earth released a report​ earlier this month detailing several of the steps not taken by members of the food industry to improve the feed production or address environmental effects of meat production. The majority of the 23 brands, which included grocery stores, fast food chains and food service companies in the US did not have requirements for environmental sustainability in place for their meat suppliers.

The environmental advocacy non-profit is using the report and analysis to call for companies to improve the accountability for their production practices, or those used by suppliers of animal products, said Lucia von Reusner, campaign director with Mighty Earth.

“Anyone who works in food and agriculture knows that meat takes up about 80% of our agricultural system, taking up the vast bulk of land, producing the vast bulk of carbon emissions, taking up the vast bulk of freshwater use,” ​she told FeedNavigator. “Meat is obviously on the lifecycle analyses that large companies do around their supply chain, but the sad reality is that many of these companies wait to be called out under public scrutiny before they take steps on environmental issues. We’re only just starting to move now that public concern and sentiment and awareness is starting to bubble to the forefront to drive reforms.”

The majority of the 23 companies earned failing grades when assessed for metrics including sustainable feed sourcing, supply chain greenhouse gas emissions reduction and centralized manure processing, Mighty Earth reported. Most of the companies surveyed reportedly did not require meat suppliers to address set environmental standards in their practices.

“The meat supply chain is overwhelming the dominant force shaping our agricultural system and that so many of these companies have sustainability commitments related to the environment on various other parts of the supply chain and yet are overwhelming failing to address the biggest environmental hotspot in their product lineup was really quite surprising,” ​von Reusner said. “Given that they have taken action on other steps of the supply chain like animal welfare or antibiotics.”

Feed sustainability and protein production

The report assessed the companies based on standards for feed sourcing, manure management and greenhouse gas emissions, the organization said.

Those covered in the review include Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Domino’s, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Restaurant Brands Internationals, Starbucks, Subway, Wendy’s, Yum!, Albertsons, Costco Wholesale, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Wegmans, Whole Foods, Aramark, Compass Group, Sodexo, Sysco and US Foods.

Nineteen were found not to have sustainability requirements in place to address the environmental effects from meat production, the organization said.

Among those that had some programs or standards in place, Walmart has a supply-chain greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal and programs addressing improving practices for feed crop growth and manure management, the organization said. McDonald's, Sodexo and Target have set goals to reduce supply-chain greenhouse gas emissions but there are some details of the programs lacking at this stage.

One concern regarding feed production standards is the expansion of feed crop production into areas that are “carbon-rich” ​or that have high biodiversity, said von Reusner. Others include intensive production practices, excessive fertilizer use and the over-erosion of soil.

“We want to see companies commit to sourcing feed from fields that are not expanding into native ecosystems and that have best management practices in place to ensure that on-field practices are not driving water pollution, or excess greenhouse gas emissions,”​ she said. In North America, there has been concern that native grasslands or prairie are being lost to field crop production.

Additionally, a concern is how feed crops like corn and soybeans are grown, as some production practices can leave soil bare for parts of the year, which leads to erosion and nutrient run-off, she said. One way to address that would be to support a market for alternative feed grains and rotational cropping systems that include feed ingredients that do not leave the ground bare.

Similarly, manure management is a focus because individual contract producers may be responsible for the waste generated but not have access to the economy of scale that a larger animal processing company has, she said.

“Responsibility needs to be taken on by the parent companies,” ​she said, adding that the group also is pushing to keep new large animal production facilities out of areas with impaired waterways.  

Looking forward

The advocacy organization is planning to continue to press for public attention on the topic and increase engagement from companies in the food industry, said von Reusner. The goal will be to have companies hold their suppliers accountable for improving practices.

“We’re seeing that some companies are starting to take action on some parts of the supply chain like  McDonald's and Walmart have set greenhouse gas reduction goals and have various pilot projects in place,” ​she said. “So we’re starting to see movement and there is an opportunity for companies to step forward and take a leadership role and differentiate their supply chain and meat from companies with less stringent standards.”

The organization also has been having follow-up conversations with several of the companies assessed in the report, she said. The question now is which company will lead the industry in addressing the supply system.

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