Sustainability Metrics Provide an Opportunity for Sorghum Growth in Food Products

Sustainability field-level data collection is leading to the increased introduction of sorghum in food products and marketability. Learn how one company is using the natural, sustainable advantages of sorghum to market data that sells.

Article Rachel Klataske and Karen Watson, Nu Life Market

Referred to as the “camel of crops,” sorghum has long been known as a sustainable grain to those familiar with it, but converting this knowledge into marketable data for food products is a challenge. To make an impact, ingredients must have scientific, evidence-based sustainability metrics that will pique the interest of food companies. Nu Life Market, in partnership with the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, is working to establish sorghum as a major player among sustainable ingredients by collecting data about the sustainability of sorghum farms.

“Guilt free snacking” at one time conjured images of low carb or low calorie offerings. Now, it has another meaning. Consumers who are concerned about the environment are looking for food products that have a positive impact. According to a recent Cargill survey, more than half (55%) of surveyed consumers are more likely to purchase a packaged food item labeled with a sustainability claim, and a rising number of consumer product goods companies are prioritizing regenerative agriculture in their food production.

Companies such as Gerber, Wasa, Kashi and General Mills are all pushing substantial environmental goals, such as carbon neutrality. New brands Moonshot and Airly Foods both launched “climate-friendly crackers,” allowing consumers to snack while making a positive impact on the environment, as their products have a negative carbon footprint. The trend toward sustainability is poised to continue.

Nu Life Market was founded in 2007 and has built their business on providing sorghum ingredients to food companies with full traceability to the farm level, allowing for control over what varieties are planted and quality measures to eliminate cross-contact with other grains. Nu Life Market worked with Sustainable Environmental Consultants to quantify in-field farm practices.

Sustainable Environmental Consultants, powered by EcoPractices®, helps the food, beverage and ingredient industries benchmark and track internal and external sustainability metrics. Their EcoPractices platform delivers independent field-level quantification and practice verification services for a complete spectrum of environmental impacts, including soil health, water quality, carbon sequestration, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Their team of PhDs, agronomists, environmental scientists and agriculture engineers are committed to collectively working with producers and industry leaders to better the planet.

Data collection starts at the field level. Every decision a sorghum farmer makes impacts the data collected. Tillage and irrigation are particularly important factors. Historically, sorghum has been grown using low or no-till practices and a limited amount of irrigation. Being able to quantify the impact of these decisions rewards the farmer for practices they implemented long ago. The data gathered will also help farmers understand the overall economic impact of their practices by helping them better understand overall input costs. Gathering data year after year will allow farmers to track if their metrics are improving and know what practices made an impact.

This data can be used to increase product marketability, enhance industry communications and provide valuable insight for future in-field decisions. Nu Life Market farms included in the study were shown to be 95 percent no-till and 95 percent non-irrigated. The average distance from field to processing plant was 49 miles. The study showed a positive trajectory rating for soil quality, as well as 83 percent lower soil erosion than the national average. Most importantly, 0.2 tons per acre of carbon were sequestered while the sorghum crop is grown, giving sorghum in the field a negative carbon footprint.

Once field-level practices are understood, the data collection can go one step further to include the whole farm operation, called a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), which takes a comprehensive look at all the inputs of the farm operation. Nu Life Market will work with Sustainable Environmental Consultants to complete an LCA on their milling and processing facility in Scott City, Kansas. This will allow food companies using sorghum to know the complete footprint of the sorghum flour going into a gluten-free bread or the sorghum meal being puffed into a snack. Having this data will allow for claims on product packaging that are meaningful to consumers, driving awareness of sorghum and its sustainability benefits.

Initial feedback from climate-focused food companies has been very positive. Companies are looking for partners who are able to provide useful data to help them achieve their goals and are interested to learn sorghum is a great option to help them reduce their carbon footprint. As the food industry shifts toward sustainability, sorghum is well situated to be an industry leading sustainable food ingredient.


This story originally appeared in the Summer 2022 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.