• July 26, 2017

Written by Eliza Roberts - Manager, Water at Ceres

Food can be a great unifier, presenting opportunities for people with differing views to reach across the table, both literally and figuratively. And when the diverse stakeholders of the food industry break bread together, they too can achieve greater understanding of the unique challenges they each face, and with that awareness move toward creating a more sustainable food supply.

Take the issue of water. From irrigated fields to investment portfolios, each player in the food industry is impacted, and no wonder with food production consuming 70 percent of the world’s rapidly dwindling freshwater resources.

To advance the dialogue on how best to conserve ever-scarcer water resources, even as global demand for food production soars, Ceres invited farmers, investors and food companies to the table to talk water challenges at 2017 annual conference.  We weren’t surprised that the three groups didn’t always agree—but often enough their ideas overlapped. 

Here are some highlights from the lively discussion:

What Drives Water-Smart Practices in the Food Industry?

For Peter van der Werf, a senior engagement specialist at the international asset management firm Robeco, the economic business case at each stage of the supply chain drives sustainable agriculture.

This sentiment was echoed by Dan Sonke, director of sustainable agriculture at Campbell Soup Company, who shared an anecdote in which he brought an agronomist on a field visit with a wheat grower to talk about sustainable fertilizer practices. “He spoke economic language to the grower without ever mentioning sustainability,” said Sonke. “He was telling the grower to do exactly what I, as a sustainability person, wanted them to do. What that farmer needed to hear that day, though, was the business case.”

On the other hand, Craig MacNamara, a California farmer and owner of Sierra Orchards, and Wood Turner, vice president of Agricultural Capital, a sustainability-driven agriculture and food investment firm, said they viewed consumer demand as the overall driver for increased sustainable practices.

How do you measure farm sustainability?

Sustainability metrics are a hot topic for several reasons. First, in order to measure progress in a hotter, drier future, it’s critical for farms and companies to identify the right key performance indicators (KPIs) to benchmark their water stewardship efforts.  Second, while more and more companies are setting sustainable sourcing goals for their major agricultural inputs, performance measurement details are often not clearly defined. That makes it hard to evaluate progress.

When asked to identify the best indicator for measuring farm sustainability, some panelists identified irrigation and fertilizer efficiency. The majority, however, agreed that soil health was the most vital.

As Craig MacNamara put it, “Farmers that practice good soil health tend to also practice other strong management systems because they’re thinking ahead.”

While panelists expressed interest in accounting for these KPIs through surveys, survey fatigue was identified as a concern. Not only are farmers coming under greater pressure to decrease costs and increase yields in a complex global market, but they are also being asked to share data with their many buyers through individual buyer surveys. To address survey fatigue, panelists suggested simplifying the assessments to include only the most important metrics, harmonizing surveys across key industries, and ensuring that the data collected has value for growers by allowing them to benchmark their performance against their neighbors.  Which performance indicators should be prioritized, and whether the right approach is to create a unified industry-wide survey, remain open questions among the panelists.

Incentivizing Action at the Field Level

What will incentivize farmers to actually integrate more sustainable agricultural practices? The panelists offered varied responses, ranging from financial incentives to business case imperatives.

“I think to really scale it to where it needs to be for the future, the majority of these farmers are going to need financial incentives and support to make those changes,” said Josh Prigge, director of regenerative development at Fetzer Vineyards.

Wood Turner offered another perspective, “I think an incentive to a grower might be witnessing the neighbor who was able to put practices into place and obtained real returns and benefits to their operations.”

Turner added, “If there’s a clear indication that consumers are actively seeking out not just inexpensive food, but sustainably sourced food, then I think you’ll see a different mindset among growers who realize there are financial benefits to be gained.”

Table Talk

One undeniable step towards a sustainable global agricultural supply chain is bringing companies, investors and farmers together.  In convening stakeholder discussions, we can learn more about commonalities and differences in perspective and work to ensure that the information investors seek aligns with the goals companies are setting and the data farmers are providing.

Ceres’ Feeding Ourselves Thirsty report, which benchmarks the largest food and beverage companies on their water management practices, aims to help the food sector grapple with these issues. Our newest edition launches in early September with updated company scores and water risk management recommendations.

Summing it up, Josh Prigge said, “We really need to have a more collaborative effort and have everyone at the table – the consumers, the investors, the companies, the growers – to start making some big changes.”

View this blog on www.ceres.org