A new recipe for corporate sustainable agriculture

By Beth Hooker and Nicole Tanner, World Wildlife Fund’s Water Stewardship Lead | October 23, 2020

Soil and water are intricately linked. From how they are protected to how they are managed to how they are valued across economic sectors, there is a clear connection. The decisions we make about one can have big impacts on the other.

And, few industries rely on a healthy balanced relationship between soil and water as much as the $5 trillion global food and agricultural sector.

Current unsustainable agricultural practices, such as the use of excess fertilizers and pesticides and intensive tillage on farms, are putting this relationship off balance, leading to polluted water resources and eroded soil. Nitrate runoff is the most common groundwater contaminant in the world, contributing to unsafe drinking water and dead zones worldwide. At the same time, the growing climate and water crisis is furthering the imbalance, with pollution, population growth and a warming planet increasingly threatening the availability and quality of water. The UN estimates that demand for water will outstrip supply by 40% by 2030, while access to water will be even further impacted by extreme weather events like stronger storms and longer droughts.

The good news is that companies with large agricultural supply chains can do something about the water crisis. Companies in the food and beverage and apparel sectors are major users of water globally, responsible for using more than 70 percent of freshwater resources. These companies, along with their suppliers and customers will be the first to feel the financial impacts when agricultural production becomes volatile or when water becomes more scarce.

That’s why companies should and must step up to play a critical role in tackling the climate and water crisis.

They can do their part by joining the Ceres-WWF AgWater Challenge. Our two leading organizations are teaming up again to spur more companies to take action on water. This time, we are releasing a new framework focused on sustainable agriculture principles that will enable companies to achieve robust water goals, with an emphasis on improving soil health and nutrient management practices for key commodities produced in high-risk watersheds.

Corporate water stewardship is vital for long-term resilience and sustainability of supply chains and agricultural production and, more broadly, the health and stability of communities and the economy. With these new principles,  we hope to inspire a movement of action within the food and beverage and apparel sectors that challenges companies and their peers to keep spurring each other on.

As part of the AgWater Challenge, companies will carry out sustainable agricultural practices that are locally relevant and take into consideration crop types, climate variations, and regional economic and cultural farming practices. These practices will drive crop productivity, reduce soil erosion, increase water retention, improve biodiversity and water quality and, in many cases, increase soil carbon levels, which can help mitigate climate change. Companies will also provide technical or financial support to the farmers who grow and raise their products to help bolster adoption of these practices and promote collective watershed protection.

What’s the bottom line? The water and climate co-benefits from sustainable agricultural practices will boost farm productivity and watershed health — and ensure a water-secure future.

AgWater Challenge comes at a time when the world is also grappling with another compounding economic threat: a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 highlighted vulnerabilities in all the systems we depend on and reminds us of the threats we’re leaving ourselves exposed to if we don’t take action toward a water-secure future.

It’s critical that companies work to make their global supply chains stronger and more resilient to such future shocks. A recent MSCI analysis of food companies found that $415 billion in revenue could be at risk from lack of water availability for irrigation or animal consumption, while changing precipitation patterns could affect another $248 billion in crop production.

Future proofing against these threats will require a lot of work and increased investment and collaboration. The new focus of the AgWater Challenge calls on companies to partner with suppliers and producers for both direct adoption of sustainable agriculture principles and collective action in a watershed.  Such action can include supporting projects and public policy initiatives that improve governance, address shared local water challenges and promote the adoption of best practices at a scale that improves watershed health beyond the farm boundaries.

Importantly, the AgWater Challenge builds on the success that we have had since its inception in 2016. It has grown to include nine participating companies representing over $264 billion in annual revenue. They include: ADM, Danone North America, Diageo, Driscoll’s, General Mills, Hormel Foods, Kellogg Company, PepsiCo, and Target. Collectively, these companies have made more than 25 commitments to improve their corporate water stewardship practices.

But, we need much more aligned corporate action to really make a difference and build a water-secure future for generations to come. Can we count on your company to join us in this Challenge?

Beth Hooker is senior manager of water and agricultural resilience at Ceres. Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy.

Nicole Tanner is World Wildlife Fund’s Water Stewardship Lead. WWF is one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat climate change.

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