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Will farmers make decisions based on long-term sustainability? Will consumers buy foods labeled with messages about planet survival? Should agribusinesses define strategies in those terms?

Agrimarketers may not know the answers to all of these questions today, but sustainability advocates say such issues need to be addressed for the industryís viability.

"Sustainability is critical in agriculture more than in other industries because we depend on agriculture for survival," says John Osthus, interactive strategist, Osborn & Barr Communications, St. Louis. "Agrimarketers have a moral obligation to advocate sustainable practices. Meanwhile, companies can increase profits by promoting sustainability progress."

Osthus recently urged agribusiness to take a new look at marketing sustainability during a presentation at the 8th Annual Greening of Industry Network Conference at the University of North Carolina's Keenan-Flagler business school.

Osthus defines sustainability as an economy that can be supported indefinitely. "Low-use-rate herbicides and biotechnology need to be held up as success stories," he says. "Industry has missed critical opportunities to share these stories with consumers as we sell product benefits to producers."

DuPont executives share a similar philosophy in their 21st century goal of sustainable growth. "We have worked hard to make sustainable growth part of our corporate outlook and integral to our corporate plans...," notes DuPont chairman and CEO Chad Holliday. "Sustainability is implicit in our new corporate positioning to deliver 'the miracles of science' to people around the world."

While farmers are still the main audience for DuPont and other companies, other targets must become part of the communications mix, says Osthus.

"Sustainable technologies bring in new stakeholders," he says, noting that consumers as stakeholders in crop input decisions is a new paradigm for agriculture. "Reaching new stakeholders means investing far more in marketing than you would to sell traditional ag products, because the audience is larger."

Consequently, Osthus says agrimarketers must talk about the value of soil and water quality, reducing amounts of pesticides or energy used, along with a less-expensive, more reliable food supply. "If we publicly promote activities that represent sustainability progress, such as preserving watersheds through better practices, then other stakeholders, such as hunters, recreational boaters and conservationists, will take notice," he says.

Holliday adds, "Industry has been talking sustainable talk for some time now but businesses have to take stronger actions to lead the transformation."

Osthus agrees and points to three stages of environmental strategy identified by University of North Carolina's Keenan-Flagler business school professor, Stuart Hart:

* Pollution Prevention. Using sustainability innovators as positive examples.

* Product Stewardship. Communicate product stewardship commitments and benefits at the consumer level.

* Clean Technology. Create demand for clean technologies and practices by communicating their benefits.

"The industry is talking about sustainability at the top, but we have a lot of work ahead of us to make sustainability real at the public level," says Osthus. "Some people say they are not going to talk about sustainability until they have a story to tell. Agriculture has a positive story to tell now." AM


Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer based in Edwardsville, Ill.

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