It pays to be an early mover on sustainability efforts, according to Roland Fumasi.
Fumasi, vice president and senior analyst for RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness, spoke Sept. 23 at The Packer’s virtual Sustainable Produce Summit on the business case for contributing to a sustainable global food system.
Among sustainability-related topics that include nutrition, food waste, climate change and social equity, Fumasi said that reducing food waste and increasing nutrition represent “low-hanging fruit” for the produce industry.
The fact that about one-third of food is wasted presents a big opportunity, he said.
“I think when we think about sustainability overall, the fresh produce industry making changes around food waste can really go a long way to help that challenge, keeping in mind that when you reduce food waste, you also have some positive social and positive environmental consequences,” he said.
One example of the economic benefit of being first to move is organic pioneers, he said.
Early producers of organic produce received the greatest benefit of substantially higher prices, as supply for years was exceeded by demand. Now organic production has increased and the price premium is not as strong as it was years ago.
“Producers who were early on this were able to reap some good rewards for being on it early,” he said.
In the same way, Fumasi said investing in sustainability can reap both short-term and long-term benefits.
“In the early stages, when not everybody is adopting a technology, we live in an environment today where you may be able to get a higher price of premium for those more sustainable practices that you’re employing,” he said.
Having a sustainability story to tell might be a way of getting a foot in the door to sell to a customer, he said.
Being first on the scene is important, he said.
“Traditionally, agriculture has many, many participants who are slow adopters, slow to change,” he said.
Then come those who follow the early adopters and finally the late adopters.
“I think in today’s environment, especially around environmental and social sustainability, there’s a big advantages to being a first mover,” he said.
Fumasi urges produce companies to implement a plan to measure sustainability progress.
Importance of all three aspects of sustainability
Sustainability efforts must be balanced between the environment, social needs and economic considerations, Fumasi said.
If one or more of “pillars” of sustainability is overlooked in any operation, failure is the result, he said.
Too often, economic sustainability is overlooked, he said.
“I think a lot of times in the conversation when we hear the word sustainability, and the way some people use the word sustainability, (we) automatically think about environmental sustainability,” he said.
“We have to ensure that when we’re communicating the message of sustainability, that we’re thinking about all three of these critical components,” he said.
Farmers have defied naysayers and been able to keep up the needs of the global population, he said.
About 220 years ago, Fumasi said economist Thomas Malthus didn’t believe that the earth could continue support a growing population.
“For 220 years, we’ve had ongoing pessimism about how we’re going to tackle these types of challenges,” he said. “And for 220 years, we haven’t been perfect, but we’re still here, and we have been able to get the job done pretty darn well.”
Farmers have been able to massively increase global agricultural production relative to the acreage that’s being used, and Fumasi said that points to a huge success in making farming environmentally sustainable.
"Let’s recognize the successes we have had,” Fumasi said. “I think we need to do a much better job at marketing those successes out there, not just within the industry, but to more mass media so that things are picked up and the majority of our consumers get an opportunity to hear (how we have been) successful,” he said.
There is more progress needed to feed a population that will exceed 9 billion by 2050, but Fumasi said the challenges can be met.
“I have a lot of faith, and I know that we’re going to be able to tackle the complicated equation of sustainability from all three of those angles.”