NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, US — Consumer concern and expectations for sustainability are growing, and the agriculture industry has a role to play in finding solutions, said presenters during the Women in Agribusiness Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, US. 

“This is not a fad, it is definitely a trend and it is a long-term challenge that we all need to figure out,” said Julie Robey, marketing leader, Cargill North American edible oils.

The three-day summit, which concludes Sept. 28, saw record attendance of about 1,100. Speakers during the event covered a range of topics, including artificial intelligence, sustainability, inputs, transportation, recruitment and biofuels.

Consumers are concerned about the state of the environment and believe that the planet is at a tipping point. They feel like brands and retailers should be doing more to protect the environment, Robey said. Carbon emissions were their top concern.

In a survey about attitudes toward fats and oils conducted by Cargill in 2022, 41% said they were more likely to purchase a packaged product with a sustainable claim. That compared with 21% in 2013.

“We’re seeing small companies as well as established companies saying this is something consumers are looking for and we’re going to do something about it,” Robey said.

Consumers also are paying more for products that are sustainably produced. One study found consumers were willing to spend 28% more on these products. Sustainably marketed products are growing two times as fast as conventionally marketed products, she said.

“Now we’re seeing investors, governments and regulators are also paying attention to this,” Robey said.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed a Climate Disclosure Rule for public companies. California also is considering similar requirements for companies that have facilities within the state.

The agriculture industry accounts for 25% to 33% of greenhouse gas emissions and uses 71% of freshwater supplies. Additionally, one-third of food is wasted.

“It’s really important we find solutions in this space,” Robey said. “If we can get this right, we would make a huge impact into the future from a climate standpoint, a freshwater standpoint and feeding people.”

Regenerative ag could be one of those solutions, she said. A study completed by the Soil Health Institute asked 100 farms involved in regenerative ag about their experiences. The farmers reported increased crop resilience in extreme weather, higher yields compared to their conventional system, higher income and reduced crop inputs.

It can take a few years to see those kinds of results, Robey said, but it is one way to sequester more carbon in the soil.

Partnerships will be key in finding solutions, she said.

“Maybe your company alone can’t do something but if you partner with other companies inside and outside of the industry, you can create some really meaningful impact,” she said.

Natasha Orlova, managing director, Cargill North American edible oils, discussed why edible oil markets are so dynamic. The markets always have been volatile, she said, but the extent of that volatility has changed in the last 40 years.

From 1980-1999, when the markets were simpler, the price of soybean oil moved up or down two cents per pound over the course of a year. Now, soybean oil can trade up or down two cents in a day.

“It’s a universe of factors, there’s no one factor, one magic issue, one challenge, or one problem that we can say let’s deal with it and we’re going to get rid of volatility,” Orlova said.

There are economic factors, most prominently supply and demand, as well as science and tech factors, social factors, political factors, environmental factors and other disruptors, such as the pandemic.

The global nature of agriculture impacts supply and demand so when the supply of one oil is down, it drives up demand for alternative oil solutions, Orlova said.   

For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine interrupted the supply of sunflower oil, which drove large sunflower consumers to switch to other oils. Similarly, an unprecedented drought in Canada in 2021-22 cut the canola crop by one-third, forcing canola users to turn to other oil crops. Indonesia introduced prohibitive export duties to help with domestic price inflation. The nation supplies 55% of the world’s palm oil, so users had to find other sources.

“The price skyrocketed because of government decisions or major disasters,” Orlova said.

In the United States, she said, food demand is stable for oils but non-food demand has increased mostly due to a push for renewable diesel production. Multiple companies have announced plans to build renewable diesel facilities. Soybean oil usage for biofuels in 2023-24 is estimated at 12.5 billion pounds compared to 8.5 billion pounds in 2018-19.

“The market will balance itself out,” Orlova said. “More capacity is coming on but we’re going to see more sourcing coming in.”

Next year’s WIA Summit is planned for Sept. 24-26 in Denver, Colorado, US.