Industry: Indicators underway for water-efficient agriculture

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This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

Large multinational food companies are currently looking at indicators farmers could use to show progress in saving water. Peter Erik Ywema of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative, an industry platform, spoke to EURACTIV in an interview.

Peter Erik Ywema is general manager of the secretariat of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI platform), the food industry’s primary initiative to support the development of sustainable agriculture worldwide.

He was speaking to Outi Alapekkala.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

What is the history of the SAI platform?

It was founded in 2002 by Unilever, Danone and Nestlé, so it is a food industry platform – it is not a multi-stakeholder initiative, but only counts the food industry among its members.

It is a member-based organisation targeting their sourcing. Agriculture is our primary concern because our members source from farmers. Eight years ago the initiative started from food companies’ concerns in that they realised they couldn’t solve issues alone. Sustainable agriculture is a pre-competitive issue for the industry.

What do you mean by describing sustainable agriculture and water use in agriculture as a pre-competitive issue for industry?

Even though companies feel that they are competitive, they see that the development of a playing field of sustainable sourcing has to be seen as pre-competitive.

They also saw eight years ago that there was a lot of confusion on the market – and there still is – when different buyers of agricultural products come with different requests to farmers.

What do you mean by different requests?

Different procurement schemes from companies like Unilever, Nestlé, Coca Cola – they are all slightly different regarding their demands towards farmers, some focusing more on social issues, some on water, etc.

Now all our members adhere and use our basic definition of sustainable agriculture.

The added value of the platform is that those 25 big multinational food company members use the same principles and practices towards their suppliers regarding sustainable agriculture.

So they are streamlining their demands to the extent that it is possible – what they ask from farmers and how they make farmers aware of the need to produce sustainably.

And part of the SAI platform’s package of principles and practices is about water – others include soil, pesticide use, farmers’ income, rural development, etc.

Are any farmers involved in all this?

No, it is a food industry platform and it started with defining those principles, but the members who were present at the beginning have tested those principles within their supply chain or with ‘their’ farmers, who supply the companies: to not make it just a theoretical exercise, but also end up with recommendations on good practices.

We feel that this is the most pragmatic way to do it in the mainstream value chain. So it is not about a niche product, such as fair trade or organic, but about mainstream products and having a basic understanding of what sustainable agriculture means.

For example, if one of the recommendations is to use as little water as you can for a kilogram of crop or livestock – it is considered as pre-competitive, as everybody depends on the same amount of water.

Water sustainability in agriculture is not yet a competition issue, but could become one.

What is the interest of the food and drinks industry in using water efficiently?

The interest is that they want to buy agricultural products in the future as well. So they are really concerned that they cannot, if we don’t care about water or soil. So it is more than just ethical or CSR issues: this is about strategic issues of procurement and supply.

You said the SAI platform is more of a research organisation than a policy lobby. What are you researching?

Our members research the use of drip irrigation, for example, and they share the results of their pilot projects all over the world – be it in India, Brazil or Europe – to make use of the results.

As a platform, we do not do much research ourselves, but now we are doing laboratory research on what can be the best indicators or the best metrics to prove progress in sustainable agriculture – how can a farmer show that he is improving and doing a better job compared to a year ago or compared to his neighbour.

For water this starts with measuring the water you apply in your field. Comparing those figures with your neighbours or what you have used last year. Awareness is the first step.

This kind of research will be of huge interest to CAP reform.

Yes, but I don’t know much about CAP reform, to be honest. We are much closer to the farmers, researchers and supply chains than to politics, the EU or the governments.

There is a lot happening without governments and their interference. There is a lot of progress happening just between the different chains in the value chain and even between NGOs and companies.

Today (12 October) we had a stakeholder meeting with WWF and different trade organisations and companies to talk about what the future issues for sustainable dairy are which are not yet on the agenda.

What are you saying – that you are more efficient on your own or that governments are not interested in this subject? 

No, they are just absent. The EU and government people don’t keep up with the speed of developments and the real changes in the value chain – or the real improvements in the production of food.

Production of food has been made more sustainable and every day people are working on that – be they individual farmers or big multinationals, small companies or traders.

But the SAI platform’s sustainability principles and practices are not yet at mass adoption level. They should be used much more, and widely. So, on pilot-scale level, our activities concern up to 30,000 farmers – but we need to reach out to millions of farmers and the struggle is how to do that.

Do you think that governments are not interested or just not involved?

I don’t know, both. Meanwhile, they are invited to our events like the big conference we just had last May here in Brussels.

What research work are you doing on water? Are you addressing the water footprint concept?

We do work with the water footprint concept, although we see serious shortcomings with regard to regional impact. Now, a cup of coffee is often associated with 1,500 litres of water or so, but it depends if that is a problem. Some coffee regions receive too much water rather than too little.

Does your platform eventually hope to give advice in future on the best location to produce certain foods, so that the crops are the most water efficient and sustainable?

In theory, yes. I think that some of our members make their choices based on the availability of resources – and water is one of the resources that can be available or can be scarce.

I see a problem with growing tomatoes in California, because they are very water intensive, for example, and there is just not enough water there. So there have been initiatives from the Californian government to shut off the tap for farmers, giving priority to citizens.

So if you decide to grow potatoes or tomatoes in a place where there is no water available or where it is scarce – there is a risk of not getting the water if it is redirected elsewhere. And that is certainly part of planning your capacity.

What about water pricing in agriculture? What does the food industry think about that? I’d imagine that if farmers need to invest, for example, in water saving technologies, then the price of agricultural commodities will go up.  

There is no common consensus on this.

I think that industry sees pricing as a potential tool, but I’m not sure if everyone agrees on that. There is no single view. And some people still see water as something everyone should have free access to, so no price for it.

But very often if there is no price there is no drive for using less. So here there is no difference in perception between people, industry and other stakeholders.

I think that many people in industry believe that if there is a price on something it drives more efficient use.

And even without a price, there is a lot to do to use less water and raise farmers’ awareness about water issues.

Do you see any role for any kind of trading of water credits in agriculture, for example?

I don’t think so, because this is a local issue and therefore very difficult to design.

Could you imagine any offsets for water use in agriculture?

No, but I think there should be better watershed management at governmental level. So governments need to understand watersheds and capture areas, where one should have a specific policy for those areas to create better equilibrium.

What are the main challenges for sustainable water use in agriculture? Are there any technical or scientific challenges?

I think that the challenges are not so much technical.

We had a water seminar a year ago in Rotterdam and one of the comments of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) was that we all seem to do the same pilot projects proving that drip irrigation works and we use less fertilisers and pesticides with amazing results.

But the question is that why isn’t all this immediately picked up by other farmers, because even the payback time is less than a year. Even with a low price on water the payback time is fairly short. And this has been proven in Italy, India, Spain and California.

So, what’s the problem?

Exactly that’s the problem – why isn’t there any pick up of this? I don’t have the answer. So, the technique is there and we know how to do it.

But then it must be the cost.

There is a price, of course, but if paybacks proven by these pilots are so short I don’t know why this is not working. 

Maybe it has to do with culture, farmers don’t adopt these new techniques or new technology easily. Maybe it has to do with awareness. Meanwhile, better water management would improve the product and the yields as well.

How can drip irrigation increase yields?

Because you apply the exact amount of water that the plant needs. And if you do that in the right way, tomatoes for example can grow bigger and have higher sugar content.

So, apart from the environmental effects there are huge yield effects as well.

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