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Q&A: Karen Totland, head of FMC sustainability

New FMC chief sustainability officer grew up on a farm in Canada.

Many agricultural companies are focusing on sustainability at the highest levels of their organizations. FMC Corporation recently named Karen Totland as its new Chief Sustainability Officer. Totland has been with FMC for 10 years, serving as vice president for global procurement.

A chemist by training, Totland grew up on a 310-acre family farm in northwestern Canada with multiple crops, among them: alfalfa, barley, oilseed, and flaxseed. Her father rotated crops and learned new technologies. “If he was around today,” Totland said, “I'd be very proud of him and his technologies and understanding a lot more now than I did back then.” Totland admits that, now that she’s leading sustainability efforts for an agricultural company, her life has come “full circle.”

Successful Farming caught up with her in November 2020 just after the announcement.

SF: What's it like to start a new role like this in the midst of a pandemic?

KT: Well, it's exciting. FMC has been conducting business through the pandemic because we are in the food industry. And so that doesn't stop even if there is a pandemic.

SF: When did FMC get started with sustainability?

KT: Let me give you a little background on how we started with sustainability in the company. Mark Douglas, our current CEO, hired me 10 years ago to build the procurement function. That was a big focus of mine until recently. I was also part of the creation of the sustainability program at FMC. It's not to say that we weren't doing sustainability things, but we weren't organizing it in a way and sharing it publicly. So we put together a sustainability council back in 2011. We spent a year to sort of define what sustainability was for the corporation. Coming out of that, we stood up a function, led by a director, to set off on that journey.

Since that time, we have put together a program to address issues around environment, issues around social, as well as issues around governance. We've spent the last eight or nine years putting in a lot of infrastructure to measure, monitor, and most importantly, improve upon things like greenhouse gases, water use, safety improvement, and around diversity and inclusion. We've set long-term goals and continue to measure them. We've published sustainability reports to share our story with the outside world. We've come to this point now nine years later where we're going to switch it up again. That's why we made the announcement of the new office of the CSO. I'm excited to lead it.

SF: What does sustainability mean going forward?

KT: That's a good question. We're going to spend some time in the next year when we bring the team together to sort of reframe that. We're definitely going to look build on what we've done in the past and, take into the framework, the fact that while we've been on that journey, we've transformed the company. We are a leading top tier agrochemical sciences company now, and we support growers and farmers all over the world, and we need to do that sustainably. We need to listen to our customers on what's important to them.

SF: Will the goals look internal or outward?

KT: I'm glad you asked that actually. When we started, we had to create infrastructure and by the nature of that, it was inward facing But we're pivoting now to be more outward looking and look at what's important for the environment, what's important for the planet, for society, and the growers.

SF: How do you think farmers define sustainability?

KT: Our farmers want things to help them grow on the land that they have, and I believe they also care about how those things are applied – so they don't have to, for example, use a lot of water or use a lot of equipment and fuel. The application pieces are important as it relates to applying the products but also the wear and tear on the land. Growers need to get the yield they need out of their land and how that impacts the soil, the air, the water, and, of course, the efficiency of the product, so they can get the yield going forward. I think it also includes elements around labor, society, and humanity. There are a lot of areas that relate to the business we do, and the sustainable things that are important to growers.

SF: Farmers are seeking some clarity on the definition of “sustainability.”

KT: It's a word that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. As far as the farmer goes, I'm interested in exploring ways to understand clearly what matters to them. It does come down to aligning on priorities. The terminology around sustainability, regenerative ag, sustainable agriculture, and things like that can get confusing.

SF: Is there an ROI for sustainability?

KT: Yes, I do. I strongly believe that there's an ROI for sustainability. Some examples, just to make the point: we can have lower energy, lower water consumption – those all have ROI. Or if we minimize waste, that's a direct link to ROI. Doing things well with the protection of society and the planet, I think that helps to retain customers and also attract new customers. And I'll expand that to employees, because I know our employees, both in the company, as well as prospective employees who want to join the company, are interested in companies that do well. Part of our sustainability program is around safety. It's important that when people come to work, that they go home in the same shape. Those are all direct examples of how sustainability can improve ROI.

SF: Is ensuring profitability an element of sustainability?

KT: Financial sustainability is really important because, growers have to make a living to allow them to continue to grow the next crops. I think having sound finances is part of sustainability for sure, because, if we want to improve the world, it takes money. Finance is an important aspect of sustainability.

SF: Do consumers care about sustainability?

KT: I think they do. There's certainly a group of consumers who want to have healthy foods, they want to live on a healthy planet. I do believe consumers care about sustainability. I know for certain when people look at a chemical company such as ours, they look at us and evaluate us based on how sustainable we are.

SF: What’s next for FMC?

KT: We are pulling a bunch of groups together, to build a team around product stewardship, which is very important, along with diversity and inclusion, philanthropy, government affairs, industry affairs, and sustainability together. We'll recast our plan looking forward into the future and come up with a framework.


Name: Karen Totland

Title: Vice president and chief sustainability officer, FMC

Hometown: Fort St. John, BC Canada

Current home: Philadelphia

Education: Ph.D from University of Ottawa; did post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Family: Myra O’Donoghue (spouse), Rua (Irish terrier)

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