Responding to consumer and retail demand, plus farmers’ needs, Land O’Lakes Inc. has created a new sustainability business division.

Company president and CEO Chris Policinski said that stewardship of land, water and air has been a hallmark of the co-op’s members for generations, and that it has a “farm-to-fork” view of what sustainability truly means.

“We help farmers be more productive every day,” Policinski said. “The other side of being productive is using resources more wisely.”

The new division will improve conservation and environmental efficiency across its main three businesses of dairy foods, Purina animal feed and WinField crop consulting and supplies.

Policinski said Land O’Lakes is responding to increased demands from consumers wanting to know more about where their food comes from, retailers that market those products and farmers that want to improve crop yields and livestock and dairy production without degrading soil or water quality.

The Arden Hills-based company said the new business unit, Sustain, will be led by Matt Carstens, who formerly worked as vice president of United Suppliers Inc. of Ames, Iowa, which merged with Land O’Lakes last year.

Carstens said part of sustainability means using new tools and technology in a variety of ways. Tissue sampling can give farmers a better understanding of what crops need and when they need it, he said. Remote sensing not only helps farmers track crop growth and possible insect problems, but it can also map a field’s topography so that something as simple as how water runs off farmland can be better managed, with less runoff of fertilizers or chemicals.

“It’s just a natural part of the business we’re in,” Carstens said. “We’ve got to have better data and tools to help those farmers, and to use that nitrogen better.”

Alfred Marcus, professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, tracks sustainability and has written a recent book about it.

“The last time I looked there was something like 36,000 corporate sustainability reports on company websites,” he said. “They differ a great deal, and there’s no absolute standards for what they produce or the degree to which they are public relations documents.”

Some companies have made major changes, Marcus said, and others are more questionable.

Policinski said for Land O’Lakes, sustainability is real, on-the-ground improvements in all divisions.

Two months ago, Land O’Lakes announced a new public-private partnership with the state of Minnesota to protect and improve water quality across the state. The arrangement encourages farmers to participate in the Agriculture Water Certification Program, which provides funding and technical assistance to help farmers be more precise with chemical use, reduce runoff and still optimize yields.