Wal-Mart Stores Inc has long used its commercial might to forge a global supply chain with ruthless efficiency. It now has a new target: U.S. wheat fields.
As part of efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and burnish its image as an environmentally responsible company, the huge retailer is sending senior employees into the fields for the first time ever, looking for ways to help farmers reduce their use of carbon-intensive fertilizer or improve logistics.
"We don't have a lot of visibility in the supply chain, so we started in the field," says Robert Kaplan, a sustainability manager at the Bentonville, Arkansas-based firm. "I hadn't seen a wheat field before and I wanted to find out how we go from a green crop in the fields to flour on our shelves."
This May, Kaplan and a colleague were the first Wal-Mart employees ever to attend the annual crop tour across the No. 1 winter wheat state Kansas, a rite of passage for traders, analysts, academics and buyers for the past 55 years.
The aim is simple: use Wal-Mart's commercial muscle to get its Great Value-branded flour and wheat products from field to shelf more efficiently, using less carbon.
In the process, however, Wal-Mart may end up initiating transformative changes in the way U.S. farmers grow wheat, lowering costs and improving yields for a crop that has failed to keep pace with the dramatic improvements in sustainability of other commodities such as corn and cotton.
There are some relatively easy wins: convincing more farmers to abandon the practice of plowing their fields after each harvest, and using satellite imagery to optimize fertilizer use.
But the challenge is substantial. Wheat is already one of the least-intensive crops in terms of nitrogen fertilizer, using half as much as corn to produce and acre of grain.
"Wheat is relatively low input. There are not a lot of corners that can be cut," says Jason Kelley, a wheat and corn extension agronomist at the University of Arkansas.
In the last three decades, better farming practices, such as reducing tillage, have resulted in a 15 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions in each bushel of wheat grown in the United States, according to a soon-to-be-released study by Field to Market, an alliance of national farm groups and more than 40 companies including Cargill and Kellogg's (but not Wal-Mart) that are seeking to enhance sustainability.
But those gains pale in comparison to other major crops. The amount of water needed to irrigate cotton fields has dropped by 30 percent, according to the study; soil erosion in corn farming has declined by 67 percent since 1980.