KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US – Climate change is the biggest challenge facing the agriculture industry in the 21st century, said Barbara Aguiar, director, global marketing and business development, BASF, during the Women in Agribusiness Summit.

“How we treat it will be a translation in how we see planet earth, and how respectable we are to future generations,” she said. “Not participating in it is a privilege that we don’t think we have. We are part of this planet; we have to have clear goals and we have to be transparent about them.”

Aguiar participated in the panel discussion, “Sustainability: Climate Change,” with three other women leaders in agribusiness. The summit marked its 10th anniversary with an in-person gathering in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, with simultaneous virtual availability from Sept. 21-23. This was the first in-person event since 2019 due to cancellations caused by COVID-19.

Aguiar said BASF has committed to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% by 2030 and have net zero emissions by 2050. For agriculture, the multi-national chemical company wants to help reduce CO2 emissions by 30% based on a tonne of crop produced.

“For the last decade this company is proud of farmers being able to provide healthier food for a growing population,” she said. “We’re asking them to keep doing that, but also acknowledge climate change and help reduce it. I’m very confident that they can do that.”

McCain Foods has similarly set goals for CO2 reductions and is focusing on four areas of sustainability, said Jess Newman, senior director of ag and sustainability for the company. Its goals include 50% reduction of CO2 by 2050, the use of 100% renewable energy by 2030, a 15% improvement in water use efficiency and zero waste to the landfill.

Seaboard has a multi-pillar sustainability plan and is now establishing an enterprise-wide baseline GHG emissions calculation, said Jennifer Nelson, senior director of environmental affairs, Seaboard. From there, the company will establish GHG goals.

“Support from the top levels of the organization is really important,” she said. “It requires a lot of people and financial resources so to have that commitment from the top is important.”

Once goals are set, it’s also critical to remember that progress will not always be linear, Aguiar said. For example, BASF did a great job reducing emissions in 2019 but in 2020, while emissions were still down from the 2018 benchmark, they weren’t as low as 2019.

“That is ok,” she said. “We need time. There’s a level of patience that you need to keep up. That’s an important message to communicate externally and internally.”

In the beginning of implementing a sustainability plan, it can be difficult to determine who is in charge of what, Newman said. It helps to have growers involved in the process from the beginning, so they have ownership, she said.

It’s also beneficial to ensure that whatever sustainability goals are set be integrated into the company, Aguiar said. If sustainability is left isolated, it’s not going to work, she said.

“If it’s embedded into the business, part of the assessment before you launch a project, it’s different,” she said. “What are the checks and balances you have in the company to make sure of whatever goals you are setting?”

Working with other companies to find the technology that will help reach sustainability is critical, Aguiar said. BASF has worked with Bosch on electronics to help with more precision application of agri-chemicals.

“If you are able to apply pesticide in a more precise way, there is a savings in cost, resources and time,” she said.

McCain has partnered with technology companies as well as coalitions such as the Science-Based Targets initiative, which defines and promotes best practices in emissions reductions and net-zero targets in line with climate science.

“You can get your goals validated by them,” Newman said. “I see it becoming the bar that a lot of goals will have to meet.”

McCain also works with RE-100, a global initiative bringing together businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity; One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B), an international coalition on biodiversity with a specific focus on agriculture; and commodity groups such as the Potato Sustainability Alliance, which collects data and certifies growers.  

There is a real need for the collective good in order to move things forward, Aguiar said. Think of the farmers who are trying to do their best but are faced with different parameters from various end users, she said.

“This is a not a space to compete; this is the space to cooperate,” Aguiar said.

Policies also will help with the push toward sustainability, including the Paris Agreement, she said. A long-term commitment is needed so everyone knows which policies to follow.

“If we want to reach long-term goals, we cannot change policies,” she said. “Farmers need support, be it financing, training or education. We forget about education; farmers are eager to learn more. Stability would be quite welcome and also some stronger support from the government in terms of education.”

Newman said McCain would like to see support continue for the programs that already exist.

“Growers aren’t applying for them,” she said. “How can we support them in that, how can we make sure the pot of money is expanded and grows so we can keep advancing based on the strong foundation of what already exists?”

Michele Fite, chief commercial officer with Motif FoodWorks, offered a different take on sustainability, explaining how plant-based protein is grabbing the attention of consumers because it is better for the environment and more sustainable. 

“There’s a revolution going on,” she said. “Consumers are diving head-first into plant-based foods. They are doing it because they believe it gives them better health for themselves and for the environment.”

Many of these consumers are flexitarians, people who want more options in their menus that include more vegetables. Investors are pouring money into the industry because the market could potentially be worth hundreds of billions of dollars globally, Fite said. 

“More importantly, it’s growing four times faster than the animal-based market,” she said. 

A concern, however, is that many people are trying plant-based protein but aren’t repeating their purchases, mostly due to taste and texture. 

“The plant-based segment is a niche market right now with only about 17% to 19% of consumers in that space,” Fite said. “The only way for this segment to achieve that potential in terms of billions of dollars, we must jump that chasm and get to mainstream. The only way to do that is to address taste.”

A certain segment of consumers does keep coming back despite the taste because they are passionate about their values, their health, sustainability and improving the planet, Fite said. This consumer tends to be a woman, likely a GenXer or millenial, who is educated and wants to learn more. She’s educating herself about plant-based protein and she’s using social media. Taste is important, but she’s experimental. 

“She’s telling us she wants more in terms of tastes and textures,” Fite said. “She wants her vegetables to have a lot of variety and big sensorial experience. Right now, it’s a me thing. She’s doing plant-based for herself, but she has this vision that if it tasted great, she could share it with her family.”

It’s going to take innovation in the approach and design of the products, Fite said, to create a new experience in how the consumer can eat plant-based foods. Much of that involves new technologies, such as precision fermentations, to replicate the flavors, textures and juiciness of beef. 

“The consumer needs crave-ability,” she said. “Right now, that’s not the experience in this category.”