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How Big Food Companies Are Committing to Sustainable Water

The AgWater Challenge, a project of Ceres and the World Wildlife Fund, is helping food companies become leaders on water sustainability, writes Ceres’ Kirsten James.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
California drought endangered fish5
Food companies participating in the AgWater Challenge are working on sustainability in their water supply chain, including for products like almonds.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

As articles flood my inbox assessing the environmental implications of the stunning election of Donald Trump last week, it is clear that California’s resolve to tackle water and climate issues must continue full steam ahead. Clearly the election doesn’t change California’s severe drought, and nor will it change the proactive steps that many companies are taking to adapt to the new normal of ever-scarce water resources.

Big food companies that source from California’s fertile Central Valley remain committed to sustainable sourcing. As Jerry Lynch, chief sustainability officer at General Mills, put it recently, “The challenges facing our company and our planet are more pressing than ever, so we have to build resiliency in our supply chains to ensure that we can continue to serve the world by making food people love.”

Last year, General Mills pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions across its supply chain by close to 30 percent over the next decade. And last month, the food giant joined with six major brands in making significant commitments to work with their growers to help them improve their water stewardship through a new collaborative initiative, the AgWater Challenge. Spearheaded by Ceres and the World Wildlife Fund, the AgWater Challenge is designed to spur food company leadership on water sustainability.

That kind of leadership is critical as California’s drought catches up with the farmers that supply these big brands. Recent USDA data showed that cash receipts dropped a startling $9.5 billion in 2015 – or roughly 17 percent from farm earnings in 2014. Compare that to the previous year when crop revenues declined a mere $480 million, or 1.4 percent from 2013 levels. While multiple factors contributed to this steep decline in earnings, tighter water supplies played a role.

So what did these seven brands do to be recognized as AgWater Stewards?

Companies participating in the Ceres-WWF AgWater Challenge submitted detailed sustainable sourcing and water stewardship plans adhering to criteria set by the two organizations. The participants that met minimum criteria, including setting a time-bound goal for completing a water risk assessment across their supply chains, were recognized as AgWater Stewards.

Yet their work is not done. Being truly sustainable is hard. The issues are complicated and often overwhelming, and it takes time for a big food company that sources from growers all over the world to achieve real impact. For this reason, WWF and Ceres consider the companies’ water stewardship plans to be a work in progress – and the two organizations will issue a progress report on the companies’ pledges one year from now.

Let’s take a look at some of their pledges, and what they mean for California.

First there’s WhiteWave Foods, the producer of Horizon Organic milk, Silk plant-based beverages and other brands, which was recently acquired by the French food company Danone. WhiteWave sources dairy products and almonds from California’s San Joaquin region and further north and is working on water projects in the Sacramento and Feather River basin.

As part of the AgWater Challenge, WhiteWave committed to develop a robust, time-bound roadmap for agricultural water stewardship by 2018, addressing challenges of dairy, soy and almond production in areas of greatest water risk, including California’s Central Valley.

The company is already collaborating with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Sustainable Conservation on groundwater recharge projects, and has committed to further supporting and scaling such projects that restore freshwater systems for almond and field greens farmers in its supply chain in California.

And I’m especially excited that White Wave joined Ceres’ Connect the Drops Initiative and will be joining with dozens of other companies to advocate for sensible water policies in the state.

Then there’s the Kellogg Company, which on a global level is committed to responsibly sourcing its 10 priority ingredients, including rice, wheat, corn and fruits like sultana grapes and strawberries using water and fertilizer use as key indicators for sustainable production. It’s following metrics developed by Field to Market to do this. Kellogg is also supporting 17,000 suppliers, millers and farmers in water-stressed regions by providing financial aid and agronomic assistance. In California, it’s focusing its work with growers in the Fresno region, one of California’s more water-strapped counties.

And General Mills is developing water stewardship plans by 2025 for the company’s most material and at-risk watersheds in its global value chain. It’s currently partnering with local stakeholders on sustainable sourcing in several high-water-risk regions, including the Los Angeles and San Joaquin watersheds, through both collective action and policy advocacy – including the California Water Action Collaborative and Ceres’ Connect the Drops campaign. General Mills is also participating in the development of Groundwater Management plans at the basin level in California.

These brands participating in the AgWater Challenge are some of the biggest commodities buyers in the world. With agriculture using 70 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, and 80 percent of developed water resources in California, they have a business responsibility to preserve the resources that sustain those systems. And they are owning up to that responsibility as they acknowledge their bottom-line risks. We hope that more will join Ceres-WWF AgWater Challenge. The resiliency of their supply chains is in jeopardy now more than ever as climate deniers take up residence in the White House.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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