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David Butler – How Agriculture Can Fight Climate Change and Improve Farmers' Profits

May 6, 2021

David Butler believes that sustainability involves a balance of social, environmental and economic factors.

David Butler, head of sustainability at Alltech, believes that being a sustainable business means taking care of people, the planet and your profit. He joined Ag Future to discuss Alltech’s vision of Working Together for a Planet of Plenty™, how companies can begin to take action toward sustainability and why he believes in a future where farmers are more profitable and productive because of sustainable agricultural practices.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with David Butler hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Tom:                        I’m Tom Martin, and with me is David Butler, head of sustainability at Alltech. The brainstorming behind the company’s sustainability commitments and goals takes shape and form in David's office, and it's his job to ensure that Alltech is continually finding innovative ways to be more sustainable in the more than 120 countries where the company operates. Welcome, David.


David:                      Thank you, Tom. It’s great to be here.


Tom:                       That term, “sustainability,” it's a big one. It gets a lot of use these days. So, in your context, how do you define it?


David:                      Yeah. Well, I look at it as a balance of social, environmental and economic factors. So, anything you're doing — whether you're running a business or running a country — you can't neglect any one of those things. You have to look at the whole picture. So, sometimes, it's described as people, planet and profit. And you have to make sure you're not neglecting any of those areas. So, if your company is making a lot of money but you're exploiting people and damaging the environment, then you won't be able to do that forever. And so, you have to think about the long term and not just the next quarter's revenue.


Tom:                        So, how does that definition of sustainability figure into Alltech’s Planet of Plenty mission?


David:                      Well, our sustainability work is an essential foundation for (our) modern business strategy. And it's about doing the right thing, reducing risk, maximizing opportunities and looking at the long term of the company. So, it's just good business sense, really. A Planet of Plenty is something bigger than that. That's our vision statement. It’s Dr. Mark Lyons’ vision for the future of the company and the future of the agriculture industry and, in fact, the world. And it's about building partnerships and trying to do our part to work toward that long-term vision.


Tom:                        Agriculture is often cited as a source of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. How is the industry working to reverse its contribution to increasingly frequent extreme weather events and the overall warming of the planet?


David:                      Yeah. Well, certainly, agriculture is a giant industry. You know, there are over 7 billion people on the planet that we have to feed, and agriculture also produces fiber and all sorts of other products. So, it's not very surprising that we have a big footprint, you know, with greenhouse gases. And the benefit of agriculture — or kind of the good side of things — is that we’re one of the very few industries that also has (the) opportunity to capture carbon and pull it out of the atmosphere and put it into soil. And so, there are a lot of people that are working on different ways to do that through regenerative agriculture methods. There are also a lot of people that are working on ways to reduce the emissions that we produce with machinery or the production of fertilizer and, in fact, emissions from livestock.


Tom:                        In 2019, Alltech committed to the United Nations Global Compact and to work toward nine Sustainable Development Goals. Tell us about those goals.


David:                      Yeah. Well, the goals themselves are pretty amazing, I think — just the fact that they exist, because, in 2015, the United Nations came together, and they launched something called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. So, it's a blueprint for creating a better world by the year 2030. So, 192 countries joined together on this agreement, on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. And they also agreed on how to measure progress toward them. I think that's amazing, that 192 countries could come together and do that. And the goals are really designed for countries to enact, but companies can help to advance those goals, and companies should focus on the goals that are most closely aligned with their core business. So, we looked at zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, climate change, life below water, life on land, and partnerships for the goals. And those are the nine that we chose to focus on.


Tom:                        Those are some big ones. Each one of those is pretty enormous.


David:                       Yes.


Tom:                        So, making such a commitment is quite a bold step that I would have to believe must be pretty difficult for a global company that's operating in an ever-changing world of different cultures and different economies and so forth. Why was it decided to make such a commitment?


David:                      Well, actually, Mark Lyons’ vision of a Planet of Plenty came first. We had already kind of mapped that out and decided, you know, “This is a new vision for the company going forward.” So, we started looking at actions that we could take to move that vision along and movements that we should join with other businesses. And the Sustainable Development Goals is one of the best ones around, because it provides a direction for companies and countries to work with each other, and, you know, it provides metrics for measuring progress. And the United Nations Global Compact is the organization that kind of helps companies come together and work toward the SDGs. So, we joined that.


Tom:                        If you think about this as a nine-burner stove, are you cooking on all nine burners? Are there some things that are kind of up on the front and others on the back burner?


David:                      Well, I don't know if anything's on the back burner, but yeah, they're not all on a full boil yet. We've got some work to do, of course. The ones where I see the most progress right now are the environmentally focused ones — and, of course, that's kind of closest to my heart. Climate change is such a big issue, and it's going to impact every single other Sustainable Development Goal, you know. If we can't address climate change, we're not going to succeed in any of these other areas. So, we committed to something called the Science-Based Targets Initiative, which means that a company will figure out what their greenhouse gas emissions are, and then they determine, scientifically, what they have to reduce them to by 2030 to properly address climate change. So, that means that it’s not just a PR exercise, where you wave a magic wand and say, “We're going to reduce our emissions by 10%” or whatever you think it should be. It’s based on calculations by the intergovernmental panel on climate change that say, “Your emissions are going to have to come down by X percent by 2030.”


Tom:                        What advice, David, do you have for companies that are interested in making this move to more sustainable practices and operations but may be feeling tentative about it?


David:                      Well, I think, whether you’re tentative or not, I think the best place to start — the most sensible, business-focused place to start — is by saving money. And if you can reduce your energy use, then you're also reducing your greenhouse gas footprint. And if you can reduce your water use, you're helping the environment. If you can reduce the amount of waste that you output, you're helping the environment. All of those things are very important, and they have to be done across the globe and by all companies. So, why not start there, and then, take a little time and track the amount of money that you save, and then, take that money and reinvest it in some other, more ambitious things? And you know, don't just randomly pick something that you think sounds nice. Look at what your company does — like, what are the areas where you can come up with a benefit that's really closely aligned to your core business, you know? And maybe you can get your customers or your suppliers involved, and you can build partnerships around that and find ways that you can make your business stronger and more resilient and even more profitable while you're making an improvement in the world.


Tom:                        For generations, it seemed as though sustainability on the one hand and profitability on the other hand were working at cross purposes, but do they have to be mutually exclusive?


David:                      Well, I think that perception is based on the fact that a lot of people don't know that sustainability has that economic aspect. So, if you’re running a company and you’re putting so many resources into environmentally beneficial programs or social programs that your company is not profitable, then, by definition, you're not sustainable. And if your business goes belly-up, then you're not going to be making much of an impact in the world, and all the people that depend on your company are going to get left behind. So, you really have to balance all three. So, by definition, they are not mutually exclusive. They depend on each other.


Tom:                        There’s a lot of concern about population growth in coming decades, and I’m wondering: Is it possible to feed a growing number of people without contributing further to climate change and other environmental issues? Can this be done sustainably?


David:                      Well, it can't be done doing the exact same thing that we've been doing over the past many decades, because while agriculture has gotten more and more efficient in many parts of the world, there are other parts of the world where we're still clearing forests for new agricultural land. And you know, if you look at the Amazon rainforest or other rainforests, those are actually really poor soils, once you cut the trees down. So, a farmer might go in and clear land in the Amazon rainforest only to have to clear more land again in two years, because the soils are depleted once they cut the trees.


                                So, we've got to look for ways to produce more food without, you know, damaging the environment further. And there are lots of innovative ways we can do that. I think one of the most important things is to look at all the waste we have in the system. We waste an amazing amount of food; it’s somewhere between 30–40%, depending on whether you're looking at the developed world or the developing world, and that's insane. I mean, all of the resources that went into all that food are wasted. And in addition to that, a lot of that food ends up in a landfill, where it turns into methane. And so, it's like you've shot yourself in both feet there. And we've really got to get a handle on the food waste. And we just waste a lot of organic matter in general, you know, into landfills — material that should be composted and put back into the soil, and instead, it's burned or it's put in a landfill or, maybe, it's dumped at sea.


Tom:                        You know, I had not heard that about the Amazon, about the condition of the soil on the forest floor. And meantime, we have experienced deforestation in this country, in places like Appalachia, due to surface mining and so forth that was on lands that were rich in soil, and we lost that as a result of the clear-cutting. A lot of irony at work here. But looking into the future, how do you see agriculture adapting to more sustainable practices?


David:                      Enthusiastically. And I might not have said that a year ago, but I really think the conversation has changed. You know, there are so many online conferences now where people are talking about real solutions to climate change — how can we start to put carbon into the soil, how can we change some of the practices that we have that are so dependent on too many chemicals, too much chemical fertilizer? You know, how can we protect our water? And I think we’re starting to approach a tipping point where people are realizing, “Hey, we can start to do things differently here. It doesn't have to be the way we've always done it for the last many decades.” And in fact, when you look at a lot of regenerative agriculture practices, they are actually very similar to practices that were done 100 years ago. But when you combine that with science and innovation and a really precise use of technology and modern automation and mechanization, then you can see do those things at scale.


Tom:                        Yeah. I guess the journey to this realization about climate change and about sustainability and so forth has been very halting over the years, but it seems as though — are you sensing that we're “getting it” now?


David:                      Yeah. I really do think we are. I mean, I’ve been on a lot of video conferences and calls with organizations like the USDA and Farm Bureau and pretty conservative legislators, and nobody is saying, “This is not happening.” They're saying, “What's the best way forward? How can we make the changes that we need to make, and how can we do it in a way that doesn't put it on the backs of the farmers?” The farmers can't afford to change everything they're doing out of their own pocket, you know. And the whole world is going to benefit when we start to put carbon back into the soil. So, the farmer should benefit from that as well.


Tom:                        What are some of the more important changes that you’ve been observing in recent times that have to do with that?


David:                      Well, I think there is a lot more talk now about complex multiple crop rotations, about cover crops keeping the soil covered year-round. Soil health is a big, big topic — much bigger than it used to be. And rotational grazing is also very, very important. So, that means that you're taking grazing animals — whether they’re cattle or sheep or even possibly bison — and you're moving them through small paddocks and moving them, maybe, as much as every day. And so, you mimic, kind of, the behavior of a natural herd that is chased by predators and is constantly moving through the environment. And that means that instead of turning them loose on 100 acres and just letting them mow that all year long, you're moving them around these small paddocks and (into) every paddock. It's a very long rest time, and the animals are bunched together, and they trample the grass into the ground, and they fertilize it. And that's how the soils in our grasslands were created, you know: in that symbiotic kind of relationship with herd animals. And those grasslands are some of the most rich — they were some of the most rich carbon sinks on the planet.


Tom:                        Wow. That's really fascinating, and the whole thing is. So, I have to believe that when you get up in the morning, you get ready to go to work, you're pretty excited about it. What excites you most about your work in agricultural sustainability?


David:                      Well, I think the thing that is most exciting to me is that agriculture does have this amazing opportunity to kind of help us rebalance the carbon cycle, pull all the excess carbon back out of the atmosphere. And in the process, we can make farmers more productive, more profitable; make the soil healthier; make our food healthier and our water healthier. And if I can have some little, small part of that, some area where I can help with that, then that's exciting to me.


Tom:                        That’s David Butler. He leads the sustainability team at Alltech. Thank you, David.


David:                      Thank you, Tom.