North American farmers profit as consumers pressure food business to go green
Beer made from rice grown with less water, rye planted in the off-season and the sale of carbon credits to tech firms are just a few of the changes North American farmers are making as the food industry strives to go green. The changes are enabling some farmers to earn extra money from industry giants like Cargill, Nutrien and Anheuser-Busch. Consumers are pressuring food producers to support farms that use less water and fertilizer, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and use more natural techniques to maintain soil quality.
Investments in sustainability remain a tiny part of overall spending by the agriculture sector, which enjoyed healthy profits in 2020. They may help to head off more costly regulations down the road now that Democratic climate advocate Joe Biden was elected U.S. president. Some companies, like farm retailer and fertilizer producer Nutrien , are also opening new revenue potential for farmers by monetizing the carbon their fields soak up. The companies say technology is improving measurement and tracking of carbon capture, although some environmental activists question the benefit of such programs and how sequestered greenhouse gas volumes can be verified.
Sustainable techniques farmers are adopting include refraining from tilling soil at times to preserve carbon. Some are adding an off-season cover crop of rye or grass to restore soil nutrients instead of applying heavy fertilizer loads over the winter that can contaminate local water supplies. A study conducted by agriculture technology company Indigo Ag estimated that if U.S. corn, soy and wheat farmers employed no-till and cover crops on 15% of fields, they would generate an additional $600 million by reducing costs, bolstering soil productivity or selling carbon credits.
Indigo has a partnership with brewer Anheuser-Busch Inbev NV, which plans to buy 2.6 million bushels of rice this year grown with less water and nitrogen fertilizer than conventional rice. Anheuser-Busch said that is up from 2.2 million bushels last year and accounts for 10% of its U.S. rice supplies.
Bill Jones, the brewer’s manager of raw materials, said farmers voluntarily growing rice with a lower environmental impact along the sensitive Mississippi River would be less disruptive to supplies than having local authorities require such practices by legislating changes to water and nitrogen use. “We look at supply chain security. I see this gaining traction,” he said, noting that Minnesota and other U.S. states and conservation districts worried about polluting the Mississippi are already introducing limits on how much manure farmers can spread on fields. Arkansas farmer Carson Stewart used the program for the first time this year, earmarking his entire 340-acre rice crop to Anheuser-Busch. Depending on milling quality, his rice may earn up to $1.50 a bushel more than conventional rice, a premium of about 27%, he said.