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Agriculture is crucial to fighting global food insecurity. What is its role in addressing the challenges of climate change?
The reality is these challenges do not stand alone. Nutrien, one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, understands the importance of taking action at the intersection of people and planet.
Over the next 30 years, the world’s population is expected to grow by 2bn people, pushing the global total to 10bn. Meeting the nutritional needs of population expansion represents one of the major challenges of the 21st century and, to achieve this, the productivity and efficiency of our farms and food industry will have to increase. The need for action is urgent; as the number of people in the world affected by hunger continues to increase.
But on top of that task, there is another: how do we meet that need in a way that also answers the challenges of climate change?
That is the question facing the agriculture industry. “We must continue to ask ourselves how we feed a growing population in a way that supports climate action, protects natural ecosystems and addresses food security,” says Mark Thompson, Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer at Nutrien, the world’s largest producer of agricultural products and services. “These are interconnected, critical issues. We simply can’t afford to make trade-offs among factors so important to society.”
For the past 100 years or more, farmers and agri-business have collaborated to improve crop productivity by implementing new technology, improving plant nutrition and plant protection, and understanding best on-the-ground environmental practices. This collaboration has been highly effective: the yield curves for major crops such as corn and soybeans consistently slope upwards.
That innovative spirit must now be focused on climate action. Agriculture contributes to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, from both the production of food and from farming practices themselves. Globally, crop production and land use accounts for about 17% of emissions. This represents a dramatic reduction over the last two decades: in 2000 the figure was almost 25%. But reductions must go further. “Agriculture is at the forefront of solving these problems,” Mr Thompson says. “It is our responsibility to make sure environmental health and food security continue to complement each other.”
“We must continue to ask ourselves how we feed a growing population in a way that supports climate action, protects natural ecosystems and addresses food security.”
Mark Thompson, Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer at Nutrien
In 2021 Nutrien released its Feeding the Future Plan – a strategy to help move forward both the industry and the world, intending to drive systemic change and lead the next wave of agricultural evolution. Within this plan are several 2030 commitments, including enabling growers to adopt sustainable and productive agricultural products and practices on 75m acres globally. The company also launched and is now scaling a comprehensive Carbon Program, which is expected to empower growers and agri-business to accelerate climate-smart agriculture and soil carbon sequestration, while rewarding growers for their efforts through the exploration of carbon markets.
According to Nutrien, this is just the beginning. With a global network of over 2,000 locations and approximately 3,900 agronomists and field experts across 13 countries, Nutrien is in a position to bring together stakeholders across the value chain to collaborate, innovate and transform.
Driving sustainable innovation
Nutrien is focused on GHG emissions reduction across its operations and its supply chain, demonstrated through the company’s commitment to the Science Based Targets initiative and engagement with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and nitrogen industry peers to develop a Sectoral Decarbonization Approach.
In its operations, Nutrien is targeting at least a 30% reduction in GHG emissions (Scope 1 and 2) per tonne of products produced by 2030 from its 2018 baseline, supported by a reduction in GHG emissions in nitrogen production by 1m tonnes of CO2e by the end of 2023.
Sustainable innovation will continue to be crucial for the company to meet these targets. A focus for Nutrien is its nitrogen fertilizer business, which currently accounts for the majority of the company’s Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Nutrien is working on a pilot facility with partners including the US Department of Energy to produce zero-carbon ammonia using renewable energy, electrolysis-produced hydrogen and air.
Nutrien is targeting at least a 30% reduction in GHG emissions (Scope 1 and 2) per tonne of products produced by 2030 from its 2018 baseline, supported by a reduction in GHG emissions in nitrogen production by 1m tonnes of CO2e by the end of 2023.
Nutrien is a leader in enhanced-efficiency fertilizers and smart nitrogen, such as Environmentally Smart Nitrogen (ESN). ESN is a slow-release urea granule that protects nitrogen from loss into the air or water while releasing it at a rate controlled by soil temperature and which matches the nitrogen demand of the growing crop. This ensures that less of it is lost to the environment and more ends up where it is needed – in the crop.
Other products the company provides have additional environmental benefits, including those that help to promote better soil structure and biological processes that yield active microbes and other compounds proven to enhance soil and plant function. Combining these advanced plant nutrition products with precise application and best practices such as the “4Rs” of nutrient stewardship (the right source is applied at the right time and the right rate to the right place) further improves efficiency and reduces losses, providing an economic benefit.
Providing on-the ground support
In addition to new technologies, the agriculture industry needs a framework for measuring the success of its emissions-reduction initiatives. For carbon, Nutrien is working to build that framework by advancing a low-carbon certification scheme, which aims to create a universally recognized standard for low-carbon ammonia products to support pricing, market transparency, verification and confidence around emissions claims.
Additionally, Nutrien’s Carbon Program aims to enable growers around the world to reduce the emissions footprint of farming, by creating a systems-based approach to carbon sequestration and GHG emissions reductions in the field. This will also help to address the company’s Scope 3 emissions over time.
Agricultural solutions have to be customized. The food ecosystem may be global, but growing crops is highly local. Soil types and climate vary from country to country and region to region; every acre in a field is unique. Finding local solutions is critical to improving productivity and sustainability because, for example, growing soybeans in the Midwestern United States is very different from growing wheat in Australia.
Nutrien’s Carbon Program takes all of this into account and, where applicable, considerations are given to practices like no-till farming, as well as the use of cover crops such as alfalfa and rye, which sequester carbon within the soil, while also incentivizing the use of product technologies and practices that reduce nitrogen loss and emissions on the farm.
The role of technology is critical in this effort. Nutrien offers technological guidance through its Digital Hub, which provides historical and real-time information, grower-specific analytics and performance measurements to help growers to make informed decisions for their operations. “Agriculture has been successful in driving productivity,” says Mr Thompson, “and we have a massive opportunity to drive climate action through the integration of innovative and new products and practices, supported by leading-edge digital and computational capabilities.”
“Agriculture has been successful in driving productivity and we have a massive opportunity to drive climate action through the integration of innovative and new products and practices, supported by leading-edge digital and computational capabilities.”
Mark Thompson, Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer at Nutrien
Nutrien’s field experts work with farmers to collect field-level data and establish a baseline, provide a customized crop plan, and gather end-of-season data to quantify carbon outcomes.
The company is also utilizing the advantages of its position across the value chain to unlock additional value on the farm, and for consumers, by enabling traceability of crops into finished goods, whether for fuel, food or fiber. One example is Nutrien’s partnership with Applied DNA Sciences and The Normal Brand on a cotton traceability project. This uses track-and-trace technology to collect end-to-end data from the field to the manufacturing facility. This information is available to consumers who want to be sure exactly where the materials for their new shirt or jeans came from. But it also benefits farmers, who use the data collected from their fields to inform future crop management.
Enabling economically viable paths
In addition to data, many farmers need financial assistance to support the adoption of environmentally smart practices. Nutrien believes it can address this challenge while also supporting rural livelihoods by adapting lending plans to suit these individual needs and engaging supply-chain partners to invest in practices with lower carbon outcomes.
That, in turn, helps to strengthen supply chains so that food makes it from farm to plate more quickly and reliably. During the covid-19 pandemic, supply-chain disruptions have gone from specialized vocabulary to a feature of our everyday lives. The problems faced during the pandemic have been a reminder of just how important it is to have a resilient food system.
One way to build that resilience is to bring more people into the chain by investing in entrepreneurs from under-represented groups. Nutrien has partnered with Radicle Growth, a venture-capital firm, on an Inclusion Challenge. This will identify and reward two cutting-edge ag-tech entrepreneur companies that are committed to help advance women or black, indigenous or people of color.
By investing in entrepreneurs, as well as offering mentorship and market intelligence, initiatives like the Radicle Inclusion Challenge will foster the innovation the industry needs for the future.
Global food insecurity and the impacts of climate change are collective, interconnected challenges. Through sustainable technology and innovation, on-the-ground support for farmers, and efforts to ensure that farming is an economic and inclusive livelihood, Nutrien is leading the way for its industry to continue to grow.
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