Food industry ponders water indicators in farming

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

For multinational food companies, greening agriculture is not just a topic to be listed under their annual corporate sustainability reports.

In fact, issues like efficient water use in farming fall directly under the strategic topic of security of future supply, said Ywema, general manager of the secretariat of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative, an industry platform.

"Agriculture is our primary concern because our members source from farmers," said Ywema, stressing that companies are interested in water efficiency because "they want to buy agricultural products in the future as well".

The joint industry initiative was launched eight years ago because companies realised they could not solve sustainability issues alone.

The platform is about putting sustainability in the mainstream value chain and recognising that the development of a level playing field for sustainable water sourcing is a pre-competitive matter, Ywema explained.

Streamlining requests

When the platform was established in 2002, there was "a lot of confusion on the market," Ywema recalls, with different companies making varying sustainability requests to farmers.

This was due to the wide variety of procurement schemes used by companies like Unilever, Nestlé and Coca-Cola, which were all "slightly different regarding their demands towards farmers, some focusing more on social issues, some on water and so on," Ywema explained.

But now, all members use the platform's basic definition of sustainable agriculture and use the same principles and practices towards their suppliers regarding sustainable farming, he said.

"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," Ywema said.

To avoid making this a theoretical exercise, platform members have tested those principles within their supply chain or with the farmers supplying their companies.

However, the platform's sustainability principles and practices have not yet reached mass adoption level. On a pilot-scale level, its 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," Ywema admitted. 

Sketching agricultural sustainability indicators

The platform's member companies research the use of drip irrigation, for example, and then share the results of their pilot projects around the globe to put the results into practice.

The platform itself is currently 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," Ywema explained, adding that "awareness is the first step".

Governments absent

Asked about the use of such indicators in upcoming reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Ywema stressed that he does not know much about the CAP and said that the SAI platform is much closer to farmers, researchers and supply chains than politics.

"There is a lot happening without governments and their interference. There is a lot of progress happening just between the different [links] in the value chain and even between NGOs and companies," he said.  

Ywema argued that public officials usually do not keep up with the pace of development or real improvements in the food production value chain. "They are just absent," he said.

Challenges for sustainable water use in agriculture

According to Ywema, the biggest challenge for sustainable water use in agriculture is that there is no immediate pick-up of the very promising results obtained from various pilot projects.

For example, he cited drip irrigation systems or existing methods to decrease the use of fertilisers and pesticides as being overlooked. However, he insists that the techniques are there and that their usage is known.

"There is a price, of course, but if paybacks proven by these pilots – less than a year – are so short I don't know why this is not working," he said.  

As regards the use of water pricing as a potential tool to boost more efficient use, Ywema stressed that there is no common industry consensus on the matter.

He believes that there is greater potential to raise farmers' awareness about water issues and to achieve better understanding and management of watersheds at governmental level.

To read the interview in full, please click here.

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