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Big Food Takes Soil Health Seriously

From Soil Health Summit, McDonald’s sustainability director talks investing in sustainability programs.

Any one of the 6.5 million persons who visits a McDonald’s restaurant each day is likely more concerned with Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets than soil health.

“I’m almost positive that no single customer has ever come into a McDonald’s and asked, ‘What’s going on with soil health?’ ” says Townsend Bailey, director of sustainability at the world’s largest restaurant company.

But make no mistake – McDonald’s customers care about sustainability, of which soil health is a key component. “They want to know that people producing food have the same values,” Bailey told the audience at the 5th Annual Soil Health Summit in St. Louis, January 15-16.

“Soil health” and “sustainability” may just sound like the latest fads that food companies can use to peddle more products. But McDonald’s joins a host of other big food companies – Cargill, ADM, General Mills and others – that take these terms seriously.

Bailey says McDonald’s looks up and down its supply chain to see where it can have the “best possible impact.”

“We know as a food company that without soil and the people who take care of it, we don’t have a product for our customers,” Bailey said during an interview with Successful Farming magazine at the Summit. “We know as a food company that without soil and the people who take care of it, we don’t have a product for our customers.”

Soil health, he adds, is a key component to having a positive impact on sustainability throughout the company’s supply chain.

How do farmers capitalize?

Yet, how farmers can take advantage of food companies’ desires to be sustainable is difficult to define.

Take McDonald’s, for example, which feeds 1% of the world’s population every day. A tremendous amount of product is necessary to fill a specific supply chain. That makes direct marketing from farm to McDonald’s extremely difficult.

“For McDonald’s, we’re looking at how do we do this at scale. It isn’t so much the product from this farm and this hamburger. It’s really about the aggregate impact we’re looking at, for a supply chain of our scale. Because of our scale, we’re not going to be selling a niche product,” Bailey explains.

That’s part of the challenge of a commodity market. The company spends more time and money on accounting and segregation for a niche product. Therefore, McDonald’s chooses to support programs like the Soil Health Partnership, where it can have a greater direct impact to farmers.

“We work with SHP because we see value in what it is doing. And if we can use our brand to call a spotlight to what the organization is doing, that’s a way we can have impact,” Bailey says.

Most farmers who take steps to improve soil health on their farms find value from those efforts, whether its reduced input costs, more profit per acre, or intangible value from doing good. Rather than incentivize farmers directly, McDonald’s invests into research and development of soil health practices as a way for the company to help farmers.

Direct incentive programs for farmers to adopt sustainability initiatives aren’t always a good investment.  

“If you’re not finding value from growing cover crops, you’re probably not going to keep doing it,” Bailey says. “If farmers are doing a practice just because someone is paying them, then is that practice really going to be sustainable in the long run? Is it really going to withstand in the market place?

“It’s fair to ask about premiums. There’s nothing wrong with asking about them. But let’s also not get stuck in one transactional interaction.”

In its infancy

McDonald’s soil health journey, and the company’s collaboration with individual farmers, is in its infancy. And, the company’s efforts may not result in dollars directly in farmers’ pockets, but in research to help them capitalize on sustainable practices.

“At the end of the day, we all want to sell more of our product. McDonald’s wants to sell more of our product, and farmers want to sell more of their product, too,” Bailey says. “Thinking about it in terms of just paying more; well, that’s one mechanism. But there are so many other ways to create mutual value.”

For instance, McDonald’s has invested in research on rotational grazing practices that improve soil health  at Arizona State University and Texas A&M University.

The company is also developing market models with the Noble Research Institute and looking into other programs.

“There are all sorts of different options. We’re beginning the journey and want to keep everything on the table,” Bailey says. 

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