Candace Laing is VP Sustainability & Stakeholder Relations at Nutrien. Candace is involved in strategic initiatives at Nutrien – the world’s largest provider of crop inputs, services and solutions – that span corporate affairs, sustainability, and stakeholder engagement. Her career has spanned both private and public-sector organizations and she has served as an instructor at the University of Saskatchewan in the Edwards School of Business.
GlobeScan CEO Chris Coulter spoke to Candace about the opportunities around sustainable business, the agriculture sector’s most challenging and exciting issues, and Nutrien’s Purpose journey.
What do you see to be the changing opportunities for sustainable business?
There is so much shifting right now with sustainable business. The previous landscape, if you’re looking at a maturity curve, was focused on corporate social responsibility. While it is still important to be striving to be a ‘good’ business, this new chapter has a very integrated approach thanks to the increasing focus on environment, social and governance (ESG) risk, which is largely being driven by investor interest in sustainability but also by other stakeholders.
Investors increasingly care about the long-term risk perspective facing companies and are looking much more intently at ESG issues. What that means for sustainability and the sustainable business opportunity is that this is becoming a core and mandatory part of business as opposed to a nice-to-do. From a maturity perspective, it means we are now going to be integrating sustainability into and across our business which is exciting.
Are you feeling some of those integration points at Nutrien?
As I learned more about the shifting ESG landscape, I started talking to Investor Relations and others to brainstorm ways we could work more closely together. In order to execute well on this next chapter and fully integrate sustainability into our business, we know our sustainability team needs to work seamlessly with Investor Relations, Corporate Reporting, Enterprise Risk Management, Strategy and our Environment team. One exciting move we made this year was to formally bring over an investor relations team member into the sustainability team to lead our work on ESG.
We have also established a cross-functional working group which includes Enterprise Risk Management and Corporate Reporting, in order to help us determine where and how we need to pivot in terms of assessing our longer-term risks and the disclosures around that. This is co-sponsored with our CFO, which is critical. If you’re going to be integrated, there is no such thing as a standalone sustainability department any longer.
What are the most exciting and challenging issues in agriculture today?
Agriculture’s challenge is to feed ten billion people by 2050 with less impact on the environment and this is a monumental challenge facing the world. Simply put, agriculture is an emitter and we have to find ways to reduce emissions and grow more with less impact.
The fact is there is no more land. If anything, we have to return land to be a carbon sink so we need to find ways to increase productivity with remaining farm land so we can relieve pressure on deforestation. There is no more turning land into farmland, so modern ag-practices are really important, both to address climate change but also to help agriculture adapt to the impacts of climate change.
For instance, agriculture will be impacted by climate change in terms of which regions will be increasingly water stressed or not able to grow crops in the scenario of a few degree increase in temperature. We need to understand these impacts and find solutions to continue to grow food sustainably in more extreme climate conditions.
A big opportunity is around nature-based climate solutions and specifically the ability for farmers to sequester carbon. This type of sequestration is a key part of our answer globally for climate change and addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
Where does innovation fit into this conversation? Is it something that is talked about in the corridors of Nutrien?
Absolutely. Firstly, products and practices in the field over the last fifty years have contributed to great increases in yield. Without those practices and products, we wouldn’t be going from twenty-two bushels an acre from a wheat field in the seventies to sixty-five bushels an acre on the same amount of land today. An enormous amount of land has been spared from deforestation and that needs to continue.
Secondly, agriculture is probably one of the last sectors to digitize. Part of the Nutrien story is about digitizing the sector and bringing technology to the field level. Not only do on-farm decisions and practices improve with data but science in our sector also improves. The more data we get at the field level and the better we’re able to measure and track the sustainability outcomes from field level practice changes, the better the science is going to be able to help improve yields and minimise impact. It is a virtuous circle that is very exciting.
Nutrien is a new company. What is the Purpose journey looking like so far, and what is next?
Bringing together two strong legacy companies – Potash Corp and Agrium – has really tied our purpose together. Our purpose is to grow our world from the ground up. ‘Grow our world’ because we know the importance of feeding ten billion people by 2050 sustainably. ‘From the ground up,’ by bringing the natural nutrients out of the ground or out of the air with nitrogen and distributing those along with other crop inputs and solutions to growers.
What is unique about us is the retail side of the business – we are in the field boots-to-boots with over half a million farmers globally. So, if we develop a new technology or solution, we’re bringing it directly to the farm because of that unique relationship we have with growers. That is very exciting for us when we are looking at practice changes that reduce emissions at the farm level and actually tracking those successes. That relationship, that interaction we have at the farm level, is a very unique part of our story and our purpose.
We’re a new company and when we merged, we had our purpose outlined and communicated to the organization and employees before anybody knew what their roles were in the new organization. We literally started with purpose and it really is the backbone of our sustainability strategy. If we’re going to grow our world from the ground up and if we are going to meet this challenge of feeding ten billion people by 2050, then we need to take a leadership position which executes on our purpose. This means we will lead globally in sustainable agriculture.
How is your purpose being received internally?
Both our purpose, “to grow our world from the ground up”, and our company tagline, “feeding the future”, resonate with employees because they know working with Nutrien is part of something greater in the world and is going to do the world a great service.
At the end of the day our employees feel good that they help feed the world and directly contribute to sustainable development goal #2 – end hunger. Their role in ensuring we have productive and sustainable agriculture is something that really aligns at the individual level, even if they are a few generations away from farming. It definitely connects for me as an individual. I grew up on a farm and my entire family is still farming and working very hard to grow our food.
How does this tie into your personal approach to leadership?
There are two things that resonate most with me. One is collaboration – if sustainability is going to be integrated with the business, it belongs to everybody. The cross-functional work with investor relations, with risk, with reporting, and of course with operations and the environment team. I spend most of my time working horizontally and partnering, advocating for positions in those areas more so than positions in my own area so that we have people across the business focused on this. Collaboration is not just internal, but external as well in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and figuring out solutions to complex issues. Collaboration with competitors is also an important part of the path forward. We need to link up arms with competitors in carving our path forward with climate smart agriculture.
The second piece would be looking at the external landscape and positioning goals. We talk about becoming more ambitious with our sustainability strategy and targets but I would actually pivot and say staying relevant supersedes becoming more ambitious because of the momentum regarding the 2030 agenda and the urgency around climate. To me leadership means making sure that we come out with a plan that is relevant given our scale, our size and our capabilities and that we work very hard to provide solutions for a growing world.