Smithfield looks through whole supply chain to limit carbon impact

Manure remains the largest impact on carbon for the worldwide swine production company

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Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer and processor of hogs, has a significant plan to reduce carbon emissions from its operations.

The company has set a goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 25 per cent by 2025 in its United States operations.

Why it matters: Farmers are increasingly under pressure to reduce carbon emissions. Large companies are under even more pressure and this is one company’s approach.

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Dawn Williamson, environmental and sustainability manager with Smithfield Foods in the U.S., told the recent Sustainability and Digitization Leaders agriculture conference in Miami that it has found that manure accounts for 40 to 45 per cent of its carbon production. Consumers are another 20 to 25 per cent, grain and feed milling takes in another 15 to 20 per cent and the remaining 15 to 20 per cent is non-grain feeding (like bakery and brewing waste), production, transportation and slaughter.

Much of Smithfield’s production is in the Carolinas and manure is housed in large open pits.

The Chinese-owned company knows that manure is an important resource, but it is where it can have the most climate impact, she said.

“We’ve always understood manure is valuable from an energy and nutrient standpoint,” she said.

The company has tried several approaches, including covering pits and flaring off gas and burning methane produced in digesters for electricity. Neither worked that well.

However, it is now concentrating on collecting the methane and turning it into natural gas.

That gas can be used to power vehicles or it can be put into a pipeline.

Smithfield is also partnering with companies that take the manure and process it into a more concentrated form for sale to farmers. That includes Anuvia, a company with a product that provides slow release nutrients for farms and turf.

Smithfield buys most of its feed, and so doesn’t have direct impact on or connection to farms that produce the grain that feeds its pigs. In fact, most of its corn comes from the U.S. Midwest, far from the Carolinas.

It created a program that provides free agronomic services to grain producers and helps encourage them to optimize fertilizer use, plant cover crops and use conservation tillage. It’s in this area that the company worked with the Environmental Defence Fund.

Smithfield decided to try to influence 75 per cent of the acreage on its crops were grown, and it hit that goal in 2018.

Production efficiency improvements — especially relating to more efficient use of feed — also play an important role in reducing the carbon footprint. After all, if an animal creates the same lean gain with less feed, that means less impact on the grain side, and less manure produced.

Smithfield continues to investigate how it can have an impact on the consumer consumption of its product they continue to investigate how they can have an impact on the consumer consumption of their product and its relation to carbon emissions.

Who pays for sustainability effects on farms?

Agriculture productivity has increased dramatically, says Andy Knepp, vice-president of environmental strategy with Bayer Crop Science, and that’s not always celebrated.

“The good old days weren’t all that sustainable,” he said at the SDL conference. His wife’s family’s farm once grew corn that yielded 40 bushels per acre in the U.S. Midwest. The yield is now well over 200 bushels per acre on that farm.

Bayer is part of the Soil Health Partnership along with the National Corn Growers and other organizations. They are modelling the effects of spreading healthy soil practices across the sector. They expect to have that research done soon. The challenge is that farms are so complex and highly variable. The model being created has 260 different farm types involved.

The project looks at building carbon accounting, monitoring and reporting functions, soil impact differences on the farm, along with verification systems.

Knepp quotes a Nature Conservancy document that stated that every one per cent improvement in soil health practices in the U.S. is worth $226 million to society.

“But the farmer doesn’t get any of it,” he said. “If society demands that our values change, we have to make sure farmers don’t suffer the burden of this expense.”

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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