The trouble with local food

nicollet-mall-farmers-marketI enjoy shopping at the farmers market in Bethesda, Md., where I live. It’s a pleasant way to pass time on a Sunday morning, and a chance to run into friends and neighbors.  I feel good about supporting farmers who work nearby. Sure, it’s pricey–I was shocked to pay $8 for a sliver of cheese a while back and if I remember correctly, fresh tuna sells for $30 per pound–but the food at the farmers’ market is pricey the way a Venti Starbucks yada-yada-yada is pricey. You’re not buying cheese, tuna or coffee. You’re partaking of an experience.

What you are not doing is saving the planet.

The best thing for the environment is to not to grow food locally but to grow crops in the places where they grow best–places where the soil, rainfall and climate suit whatever is being grown.

So, at least, says Greg Page, the former CEO and current executive chairman of Cargill, the giant food company that grows, processes and ships agricultural and food products around the world. Of course you would expect Page, who is 62 and has worked his entire career at Cargill, to favor a globalized food system. But, as he notes, there’s no particularly good reason to treat food differently from other consumer goods that are produced efficiently and then shipped to where they are needed. We don’t worry about local big-screen TVs or local running shoes or local auto parts.

I interviewed Page last month in Washington, and wrote about him this week at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Long before Greg Page became the executive chairman of Cargill, one of the world’s largest food companies, the company dispatched him to Thailand to build a chicken plant in a rural province north of Bangkok. “It was a chance”, he said, “to start a business from scratch in an overseas location, while having access to the resources of Cargill”. Plus, he noted with a smile, he was “12 hours from headquarters … I loved it”.

Today, Cargill Meats Thailand imports soymeal from Brazil and Argentina to feed chickens, which are raised, slaughtered, processed, cooked and frozen into a wide range of products, most destined for restaurants and supermarkets in Japan, Europe, Canada and Hong Kong. Chicken parts that don’t appeal to western appetites — feet, heads and the like — are consumed locally or exported to nearby Asian markets.

To locavores who want to look their farmer in the eye, to the advocates of food sovereignty, and to those who argue that ‘cooking solves everything’, this is a nightmarish way to produce food. But to Greg Page, who has spent 41 years at Cargill and is now its executive chairman, global trade in food and agriculture is not only good for producers and consumers — it’s also a key element of a sustainable food system.

“Trade facilitates sustainability,” Page said when we met recently at Cargill’s Washington, D.C., office. “The world was not endowed with good soil and good rainfall equally. You want to move production to the right soil and the right climate, where it belongs.”

Of course, as Page knows, it’s not quite that simple. All other things being equal (and they rarely are), buying locally makes environmental sense, keeps food fresher and reduces waste. We may want to restrict agricultural imports from certain places because of food-safety concerns. And, as some of the commenters on my Guardian story say, the globalization of agriculture raises issues about land and water use and trade’s impact on poor farmers who can’t compete with large-scale agriculture.

But I’m trying to make a simpler point here–that local does not equal sustainable. Trade can be a glorious thing, Fair Trade is even better, and agriculture is no exception.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Fish story: The potential of aquaponics

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During my trip to Minneapolis for last month’s Net Impact conference, I found time to visit a fascinating little startup called Urban Organics (above) in nearby St. Paul. Located in an abandoned brewery (where Hamm’s used to brew beer), Urban Organics now raises tilapia and basil, practicing aquaponics.

Last week, I wrote about the company for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Backyard hobbyists, university researchers, nonprofits, restaurants and even inmates at a federal prison in Indiana are growing food using aquaponics, a technology for raising fish and plants together in a recirculating system. So far, though, no one has been able to build a large-scale, commercial aquaponics business.

In an abandoned brewery in St Paul, Minnesota, a startup company called Urban Organics is trying to change that. Since last spring, Urban Organics has been raising tilapia, basil and lettuce, with the help of a much-bigger neighbor – a $7bn industrial company called Pentair that believes that aquaponics is on the verge of becoming a viable form of farming.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). Fish – in this case, about 3,200 tilapia – are raised in big tanks made of high-density polyethylene. Their wastewater flows out of the tanks, gets cleaned up a bit and is pumped to the growing beds, where it becomes food for the plants. After the plants extract nutrients from the water, it’s filtered again and returned to the fish tanks. While the process is energy-intensive – the plants need artificial light to grow indoors – food can be grown year-round in urban areas, near to markets.

Aquaponics is a cool idea. There’s something appealing about using the waste from the fish to feed the plants. Producing food near to where it is consumed sounds logical; the food will be fresh, and you save money on transport.

But it’s by no means clear that aquaponics will be able grow from a hobby into a scalable business. All those plants need lights, so the electricity costs are significant. The environmental benefits, if any, of aquaponics remain to be seen.

Still, the science and technology are relatively new and the fact that a big company like Pentair has high hopes for aquaponics got my attention. Chicago has its own fast-growing aquaponics startup, called Farmed Here, which sells its greens at Whole Foods.

You can read the rest of my story here.

How green are green bonds?

corp-bondSome $34 billion in bonds labeled as green have been sold so far in 2014, three times as much as last year. Some experts predicting that as much as $100 billion of green bonds will be sold in 2015. These bonds — issued by governments, companies and international financial institutions like the World Bank — will help to finance solar and wind energy, hybrid cars, efficient buildings, cleaner waterways.

This sounds like unalloyed good news–and it may be. It’s just hard to know.

Today, the YaleEnvironment360 website posted my story about green bonds, headlined with a question: Can Green Bonds Bankroll A Clean Energy Revolution? Again, the answer is maybe. That unsatisfying, perhaps, but that’s the way it is.

That’s because, for the moment, a green bond is any bond that an issuer decides to label as green. Big banks and NGOs are working to set stricter standards, but they will take a while to arrive. So, for example, corn ethanol, nuclear power and methane capture while fracking could all be deemed green.

The bigger question, though, is whether green bonds are financing projects that, without them, would not get done. Again, that’s hard to say. But if all we are getting with green bonds are labels on bonds that would have been issued anyway, we’re wasting our time.

That said, there’s potential here–at heart, the potential to attract new money to finance low-carbon infrastructure. So the boom is green bonds is worth watching.

Here’s how my story begins:

Looked at from one angle, climate change is an infrastructure problem. To limit global warming to 2 degrees C and avoid the worst effects of climate change, about $44 trillion will need to be invested in low-carbon projects like wind farms, solar panels, nuclear power, carbon capture, and smart buildings by 2050, the International Energy Agency estimates. That’s more than $1 trillion a year — roughly a four-fold jump from current investment levels.

Where’s the money going to come from? Maybe from green bonds, say bankers and environmentalists alike. Green bonds, which are also known as climate bonds, are fixed-income investments that are designed to finance environmentally friendly projects. Pioneered by international development banks — the European Investment Bank issued the first climate bond in 2007, followed a year later by the World Bank — they are today issued by state and local governments (Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, and the cities of Stockholm and Spokane, Washington, among others) and by big companies (Bank of America, Unilever, and the French utility GDF Suez).

Uses of the bond proceeds are varied. The World Bank sold green bonds to raise funds for geothermal energy in Indonesia and free compact fluorescent bulbs for the poor in Mexico. Massachusetts raised money to clean up a superfund site. Energy company EDF’s green bond financedwind farms in France, and Toyota used the proceeds from a green bond to make loans to American consumers who buy hybrid cars.

The story goes on to explain why “green bonds may not be all they’re cracked up to be.” You can read the rest here.

Sustainability advocates who deserve thanks

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I ran into Hunter Lovins last week at a meeting of business leaders at the UN. She’s wearing a black hat but she’s one of the good people. Author, activist, sustainability consultant, force of nature — Hunter always has plenty to say, and she says it bluntly and passionate.

At the UN gathering of executives from companies that are part of the UN Global Compact LEAD group, Hunter got into a friendly debate with Joel Bakan, a law professor and corporate critic, whose 2004 documentary, The Corporation, likened corporations to psychopaths.

Hunter argued that business, not government, is more likely to lead us to a sustainable future. Joel took the opposite view. I wrote about the debate here, in a story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

“We’re in a horse race with catastrophe,” Hunter told me afterwards. “Can corporations move fast enough? Government cannot. It will not. Corporations might. Will they? I don’t know. On that turns the future of the world.”

Not a bad summary of where things stand today. Hunter’s not just a good talker but a do-er, working with a variety of companies — her future and past clients include Walmart, Unilever, Patagonia, Clif Bar, Interface –to help them become not just sustainable but, ideally, regenerative.

With Thanksgiving approaching, this is a good time to thank people like Hunter–those who, as insiders or advisers, are working in the trenches of corporate America, trying to persuade their companies to become part of the solution to big social and environmental problems.

It can be a tough slog, but it’s important work. That’s while this fall in Guardian Sustainable Business, we’ve been running a series of brief q-and-a’s that showcase sustainability executives. Some are with people who I know well, and others I hardly know at all. But I persuaded my colleagues to run the series because they don’t get enough credit for the work they do.

Here are some of the people I’ve talked to, in no particular order:

Tim Mohin of AMD, about an electronics industry coalition that is seeking to improve factory conditions in the developing world.

Frank O’Brien-Bernini of Owens-Corning, about the need to be rigorous when dealing with environmental issues.

Kathrin Winkler of EMC, about electronic waste.

Rhonda Clark of UPS, about carbon emissions reductions.

Adam Mott of North Face, on the responsible cycling of down.

Vince Digneo of Adobe, about green teams.

Paulette Frank of Johnson & Johnson, about recycling.

Amy Hargroves of Sprint, about the importance of standards.

Marcus Chung of The Children’s Place, about the need to go beyond factory auditing.

If you’d like to nominate someone (or yourself) for this series, let me know. Meantime, thanks to all for participating–and for all the good work you do.

A burger grows in Brooklyn, and musings about meat

Fresh hamburger with fried potatoesThe other day, at Net Impact’s annual conference in Minneapolis, I moderated a panel called the “Carnivore’s Dilemma,” about eating meat in a carbon constrained world. It’s becoming a familiar conversation. Every other day, it seems, Guardian Sustainable Business, where I do most of my writing, runs a story about alternative proteins, like seaweed and insects. Regular readers know that I write a lot about meat, not just for the Guardian but for Fortune, which ran this story about a company called Beyond Meat and for YaleEnvironment360 where I wrote an essay that asked: Should Environmentalists Just Say No to Eating Beef?

So, during the Net Impact panel, I must admit that I was surprised to see a chart from Ian Monroe, the CEO of a startup called Oroeco, that put the climate-change impact of beef in context. This isn’t the exact chart, but the numbers are similar (carbon footprinting is a very inexact science). You will see that the GHG footprint of beef (combined with lamb, it’s 0.9t CO2e) is smaller than driving, or using electricity at home. For those of us who travel a lot, flying generates far more GHG emissions than anything we eat. Beef, to put it simply, is not that big a deal when it comes to #climate change.

American-carbon-footprint

In that context, I wanted to ask Peggy Neu, the president of Meatless Mondays, who also spoke at Net Impact: “Why not carless Mondays?” Or, for that matter, “turn-out-the-lights Mondays”? If the problem at hand is climate change, maybe we are paying a disproportionate attention to beef.

And yet, as Ian Monroe pointed out during the panel, while we can see pathways to low-carbon or zero-carbon transportation electric cars, biofuels) and, at least in theory, we can generate low-carbon electricity using wind, solar and nuclear power, it’s hard to imagine low-carbon or zero-carbon beef. There’s just no getting around the fact that cows, when compared to pigs or chickens or fish, are inefficient converters of feed to protein, and so they generate a bigger environmental footprint. What’s more, globally, meat consumption is growing, as emerging middle class people in China and India eat more beef.

And, of course, animal agriculture has negative impacts that go beyond carbon pollution. It consumes lots of water. Livestock, particularly pigs and chickens, are often treated badly. I recently visited southwestern Minnesota (hello Mankato!) and I can tell you that the odor from pig farms, when the manure is not well-managed, can be unpleasant.

All this is by way of introduction to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, about Modern Meadow, a venture-funded start-up company that one day hopes to grow beef in a lab. You won’t see anything from Modern Meadow in a supermarket anytime soon, although its lab-grown leather could reach the market in a few years.

But at least some investors believe that alternatives to conventional beef could someday become real businesses. Here’s how my story begins:

Most of us embrace modern technology. We constantly upgrade our phones, connect with each other through Facebook, pay our bills online, demand the most advanced medical treatments available when we get sick and drive cars that have more computing power than the system that guided Apollo astronauts to the moon.

But, for many of us, food is another matter. We want our food to be pure, free of artificial additives, dangerous pesticides and natural – a term that, incidentally, is all but meaningless. Genetically-modified foods arouse anxiety. We want, in the words of influential journalist Michael Pollan, to avoid eating anything that our “great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”.

And according to a Pew Research survey, only 20% of Americans would eat meat grown in a lab.

That’s a problem for Andras Forgacs. He’s the co-founder and chief executive of Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based startup that intends to use tissue engineering – also known as cell culturing or biofabrication – to create livestock products that require fewer inputs of land, water, energy and chemicals than conventional animal agriculture.

What’s more, Forgacs says, his company’s products will also require no animal slaughter.

You can read the rest here.

Aluminum, and the circular economy

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Aluminum is an amazing material, as I’ve written before (here and here). It’s infinitely recyclable, lightweight and strong.

Ford is making more of America’s best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup, out of aluminum. Other automakers, too, are designing more aluminum into their cars.

The typical aluminum beverage can in North America is made of about 68 percent recycled content and, according to the industry, a can that’s recycled becomes a new can in less than 60 days. Some craft brewers are turning to cans.

Nevertheless, somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of aluminum cans are thrown away and wind up in landfalls in the US, I’m told. Only because we are such a rich country can we afford to waste so much. But why should we?

One company that is aiming to drive aluminum recycling is Atlanta-based Novelis. Novelis is the industry leader when it comes to recycling–the company, unlike its competitors, owns no mines–and it talks a lot about the idea of a circular economy. Last week, I wrote a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about the company and its new product, the evercan, which is made of 90 percent recycled aluminum.

The evercan is, by all accounts, an environmentally superior product to conventional aluminum beverage cans, and arguably a better single-serve beverage package that PET bottles–but so far, no major beverage company has adopted it. My story asks why.

The story is getting some pushback, in the comments as well as privately from readers I respect. They say that no company has the right expect other companies or consumers to buy a “greener” product. Of course, that’s correct. My point is that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser Busch and Miller Coors all say they want to promote recycling, but none has yet committed to the most recycled beverage container on the market.

Criticism came, as well, because I was hired earlier this month by Novelis to moderate a panel on the circular economy, at the opening of the company’s new aluminum recycling plant in Nachterstedt, Germany. This was disclosed in the Guardian. I knew there was a risk in writing about Novelis under those circumstances but I felt the story was still worth doing. [For a much longer explanation of how I manage conflicts or potential conflicts of interest, see this. The short version: I’m transparent about my paid moderating and speaking work.]

While in Germany, I spent a good deal of time with Novelis and its head of sustainability, John Gardner, and I came away impressed. I’m sure this influenced my approach to the story. But I’m not alone in believing that the company is a sustainability leader. Its include such respected environmental thinkers as Jonathan Porritt of Forum for the Future, Matt Arnold of JPMorgan Chase and author-academic Stu Hart.

What I learned while reporting the story is that inventing and manufacturing a greener product isn’t enough to drive change. Other business issues–in this case, what appears to be the understandable reluctance of the big beverage companies to depend on a single supplier–can stand in the way. Changing systems is hard.

In any event, you can judge the story for yourself. Here is how it begins:

Imagine an infinitely recyclable product that performs as well as the alternative, costs less to make, and is unquestionably better for the environment. You would bet on its success, wouldn’t you?

Novelis, the world’s largest recycler of aluminum, has made that bet. Since 2012 the Atlanta, Georgia-based company has invested half a billion dollars in recycling by building, among other things, the world’s biggest aluminum recycling plant. This $260m high-tech marvel officially opened earlier this month in Nachterstedt, Germany.

Novelis uses the facility to produce materials for its “evercan”, a beverage container made of 90% recycled aluminum.

As an infinitely recyclable metal, aluminum is a poster child for shifting from a linear take-make-waste model of industrial production to a circular model in which everything, at the end of its useful life, is made into something else.

On its website Novelis endorses the circular economy, stating that it is moving its “whole business model” toward a closed loop. “We are embracing an entirely new way of thinking and operating, in order to radically transform our company – and, in the process, lead the way in our industry.”

But Novelis is having trouble finding followers. None of the world’s major beverage companies have adopted the evercan. So far, the product has just one customer: Red Hare Brewing Co., a small craft brewer based in Marietta, Georgia.

You can read the rest here.

Paul Hawken’s next big idea

98b56975-55f2-45d2-9e39-19578c3bbc70-620x372I’ve learned a lot over the years from Paul Hawken, and when our paths have crossed, I’ve always enjoyed the time we’ve spent together. He was an early supporter of FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green, and I recall a delightful walk along the beach in Laguna Niguel where he told me about the work he’d been doing with Lee Scott, then the CEO of Walmart. Some years later, I spent an afternoon with him at his offices in Sausalito, talking about the shortcomings of the socially responsible investment industry. He also delivered a great talk about the high costs of cheap food a few years back at the Cooking for Solutions conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

So when I first got wind of Project Drawdown, Paul’s latest project, I was eager to hear more. We talked by phone the other day, and the idea was unveiled last night at the big Greenbuild conference in New Orleans. I wrote about Project Drawdown for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Ten years ago, in a landmark article in Science Magazine, Princeton professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow wrote, “Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do.” They identified a series of so-called climate stabilization wedges – among them efficient cars and buildings, increasing solar, wind and nuclear power, and reducing deforestation – that if adopted would eventually maintain atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at about 500 parts per million (ppm), a level they said “would prevent most damaging climate change.” At the time, atmospheric concentrations stood at about 375 ppm.

A decade later, annual emissions continue to grow and atmospheric concentrations have topped 395 ppm – and they are rising steadily. The situation appears grim.

It is not, argues pioneering environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken. Climate solutions abound, he said, and today, at the opening plenary of the big Greenbuild conference in New Orleans, he will unveil Project Drawdown – a new compendium of climate solutions that are designed not just to stabilize, but to reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“Stabilization at 450, 500, 550 ppm is chaos,” Hawken said. “Our goal should be drawdown.”

Project Drawdown will begin as a lavishly illustrated book and online database, to be released late next year. Its purpose is to re-frame the climate debate, by showing that solving the climate crisis will bring, not sacrifice, but “more security, more prosperity, more jobs, more well-being and better health,” Hawken said.

I’m skeptical of what appears to be easy solutions to the climate crisis because, in my view, if it were easy to become radically more efficient and shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, well, why haven’t we done it already? But some of the solutions in the book, which is still being researched, are growing fast–distributed solar power, LEDs, utility-scale wind farms. Others are creative. Educating girls in the developing world, which isn’t ordinarily regarded as a climate solution, would, it turns out, be of enormous benefit because girls who get more education have fewer children, and fewer children mean fewer emissions.

You can read the rest of my story here.

The circular economy at Disney World

Harvest Power Orlando - Energy Garden copy

Alas, you won’t be able to take a tour of this new “attraction” next time you visit Disney World. But inside those giants vats, through a process called anaerobic digestion, something cool is happening — food waste, used oils, fats, grease and treated human sewage are being turned into electricity and compost.

On second thought, you may not want a tour.

But this facility, which is owned and operated by a company called Harvest Power, is a potential solution to the problem of food waste, which is a bigger problem that you might think. Food that winds up in landfills is not only a waste of money, and a source of methane pollution, but the water and energy required to grow that food (and the greenhouse gas emissions created in the process) are also wasted. Addressing the problem of food waste requires taking steps up and down the supply chain, from the farm to the table, if you will, but anaerobic digestion will likely be part of the solution.

Last week, I wrote about Harvest Power for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Millions of people a year visit Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the world’s most popular theme park. These days, some of the food that they don’t eat – as well as some of the food they do – ends up being used to make electricity for the resort’s theme parks and hotels.

How? Food waste – including table scraps, used cooking oils and grease – is collected from selected restaurants in the Disney World complex, as well as area hotels and food processors, and sent to a system of giant tanks at a facility near the park. There, the food waste is mixed with biosolids – the nutrient-rich organic materials left over after sewage is treated – and fed to microorganisms that produce biogas, a mix of methane and carbon dioxide. The biogas is combusted in generators to make electricity, and the remaining solids can be processed into fertilizer.

The circular economy at Disney World may not be as pretty as Cinderella’s Castle, but this process for turning organic waste into energy, which is known asanaerobic digestion, could turn out to be the best way to extract value from food scraps and treated sewage that would otherwise wind up in a landfill.

“We’re able to turn all of the waste stream into productive products,” saysKathleen Ligocki, the chief executive of Harvest Power, a venture capital-funded clean-tech company that built the Florida facility. “This is our goal – pumpkins to power, waste to wealth.”

I met Kathleen Ligocki recently at a clean tech event in DC. Impressive lady–she’s had a long and successful career in the auto industry, then joined Kleiner Perkins as a partner before taking over as CEO of Harvest Power early this year. The company is a bit disjointed and unfocused; it was put together through the acquisition of composting operations around the country. Her job is to scale up the operation, and eventually take the company public. You can read the rest of the story here.

Old clothes

045be76d-5287-489c-ac5f-0b33a13e6fe4-620x372Last month was one of the busiest I’ve had in a long while, with trips to Boston, Singapore, New York and Berlin over a four-week span. All for the good, but I’ve fallen behind on this blog, so I’m looking back today at a story that I wrote and posted last month on Guardian Sustainable Business.

As regular readers know, I’ve been paying attention to the circular economy, a term that describes an economy where nothing goes to waste, everything is made into something else at the end of its life, and the whole shebang is powered by clean, renewable energy. We’re a long way from there, obviously, but I see bits of the circular economy arriving in unexpected places.

One  is the textile industry, which even as it has become dominated by cheap, throwaway “fast fashion” is  simultaneously embracing recycling. That has created some unexpected tensions between old-fashioned charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, and newer, for-profit companies that see a business opportunity in collecting, reusing and recyling textiles.

Thus, the”clothing bin wars,” as I explained in this story in the Guardian:

Welcome to the clothing bin wars, a battle that comes complete with lawsuits alleging dirty dealing, lobbying of local and state politicians, rogue operators who put bins on other people’s property and even bizarre allegations that some big players in the clothing recycling industry are front groups for a mysterious Danish cult.

Who knew that recycling T-shirts and towels could get so complex?

This is basically a good-news story: Lots of people want your old clothes, sheets and towels because they have value. What you do with them is up to you–there is no perfect solution. (As a commenter in the story pointed out, even charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army face questions about their conduct.) There are bins everywhere (but read the fine print before you dump your clothes in one) and, as I’ve written before, retailers including H&M take back clothes in their stores. You can even mail them at no cost to a company called Community Recycling that I wrote about in the story. So there’s no excuse for dumping textiles in a landfill.

One more thing struck me when reporting the story: People seem to want something in return when they giveaway their old clothes–a tax deduction from a charity,  a discount on future purchases (which H&M offers), the feeling that they are doing the right thing. Even though we no longer want them, giving away clothes is an emotional decision in a way that recycling plastic bottles or newspapers is not.

Game changer: Walmart’s focus on food and ag

28e0e549-367c-467e-9f67-41c34a470b91-620x372Lately, I’ve come to believe that the food industry is moving to become more sustainable with a seriousness that few other industries, particularly energy, can match.

Since Labor Day, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to top execs from Cargill (Greg Page), DuPont (Ellen Kullman), Monsanto (Hugh Grant and Robb Fraley) and Walmart (Doug McMillon) talk about a variety of initiatives to increase crop yields, better manage nitrogen pollution, reduce food waste, improve living standards for small farmers in emerging markets and confront the obesity crisis. These are real, and they are aimed at producing more affordable, nutritious food, without destroying the planet in the process. All these companies could be moving faster and doing more–in particularly, I’d like to see them become more active in the climate-policy arena–but there’s no doubt in my mind that they recognize that climate change is a growing threat to their businesses, and they want to do what they can to respond.

On Monday, Walmart held one of its quarterly sustainability milestone meetings, this one focused on food and ag. I wrote about it in a story that was posted this morning at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Nearly a decade after setting a series of bold sustainability goals, Walmart has struggled to curb its climate pollution and buy more renewable energy. But the company has already changed the way food is grown around the world – curbing agricultural pollution, pushing healthier choices, supporting local growers and promoting transparency. And the world’s largest retailer (fiscal year 2014 revenues: $473bn) is just getting started.

This week, Walmart showcased food and agriculture during its latest sustainability summit, while saying little about energy and emissions. It’s easy to see why. The company remains a long way from being powered by 100% renewable energy, one of its aspirational goals.

Currently, it gets about 24% of its electricity from clean energy, and its fleet mostly runs on fossil fuels. That’s because wind, solar power and alternative fuels generally cost more than coal, oil and natural gas, and Walmart is all about delivering low prices to customers.

Nor has Walmart been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. While the company has become more efficient, its absolute emissions are rising as Walmart grows its market share to satisfy Wall Street. This year, Walmart plans to open about 115 super centers (surrounded by vast parking lots, in most cases) along with 270 to 300 smaller stores. Tensions between its business model – which depends on selling more stuff to more people everywhere – and its environmental aspirations remain unresolved.

But when it comes to food and agriculture, Walmart has found a sweet spot, a place where its low-cost mantra is nicely aligned with the social and environmental need to deliver safe and affordable food to the world, using less land, less water and fewer chemical inputs to do it.

The story goes on to quote Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s senior vp of sustainability, as saying: “We have very bold aspirations for systemic change. We’re not playing small here. This is a whole company, a whole industry, a whole system effort.” I don’t doubt it.

I met Kathleen last month during Climate Week in New York, and she’s impressive. A former McKinsey consultant, she uprooted her husband and kids from Toronto, where they had lived, to move to Bentonville, Arkansas, mostly because she wants her work to make a difference. She oversees the Walmart Foundation, as well as sustainability programming, so she’s in position to make sure they are supporting one another.

Walmart is in a perfect position to drive change. It has influence over big food brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, MillerCoors and many more–and, as Doug McMillon noted the other day, they are all ready to act. Environmental Defense Fund, with its Bentonville staffers led by Michelle Harvey, is bringing its scientists and activists to the task, particularly around the important (but not very sexy) issue of nitrogen pollution. Other NGOs are stepping up, too.

What’s more, as I wrote, new farming technologies will help drive efficiency efforts, so the timing is good:

There was talk at the sustainability summit about AdaptN, a web-based tool to manage fertilizer in the corn industry, and Harvest Mark, which traces food from farm to fork. Monsanto, a key partner, last year acquired The Climate Corp, which uses big data to help farmers increase crop yields, manage chemical inputs and increase crop yields.

You can read the rest of my story here.