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Connect the Drops

Farms, Food Producers Taking Strides to Save Water – and the Climate

Farming and food production use most of the world’s water and produce 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. A number of major growers and processors are taking steps to reduce those impacts, writes Ceres’ Kirsten James.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A number of food producers are taking strides to reduce their water consumption and climate footprint, including the strawberry grower Driscoll’s, which provides incentives to its farmers to conserve water and minimize impacts on waterways.Photo courtesy UC Davis Center for Agricultural Health and Safety

Water and agriculture go hand in hand. Growing food for the planet’s people consumes 70 percent of its freshwater sources. Therefore, water is not only life-giving, it is life-sustaining.

Yet with climate change, population growth and development on watersheds, an estimated 2 billion people globally face limited access to clean water. And demand for water is expected to grow by 30 percent globally by 2050.

Because agriculture uses the majority of water – and research indicates that water uncertainty is one of the largest risks facing the $5 trillion industry – it makes sense that many agriculture and food companies are concerned about water and the climate change-aggravating water scarcity issues.

At the same time, agriculture is a contributor both to climate change and to water quality and availability challenges. Worldwide, agriculture and food production account for about 13 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the World Health Organization, principally from ruminant animals such as cows and pigs emitting methane. When crop fields are fertilized too heavily, the excess nutrients can run off into waterways. Then, of course, the day-to-day agricultural operations of trucking commodities and energy use also produce emissions.

During the Global Climate Action Summit held in September in San Francisco, two entire days were devoted to water discussions at the affiliated Water Pavilion. The conveners of the Pavilion saw the critical need to highlight to the climate community that “water is climate” and the extreme importance of focusing attention on water-related opportunities and impacts. To this end, as a member of the Steering Committee, I helped facilitate a discussion about the importance of water stewardship in the food industry, the good work underway and what more needs to be done.

Ceres’ partners, Clif Bar, Driscoll’s and General Mills, joined me in discussing how food and beverage companies can work with their agricultural global supply chains to improve water stewardship and water availability, not just for growing their crops but also for local communities. We also talked about the importance of engaging with decision-makers around these issues and supporting good public policy on water management through Ceres’ Connect the Drops collaboration. These three companies – along with 34 other major corporations – are part of Connect the Drops.

General Mills talked about its work collaborating with other local water users, communities and NGOs to protect the most at-risk watersheds. Recognizing that the bulk of GHG emissions affiliated with General Mills products comes out of its supply chain operations, the company set a goal to reduce emissions by 28 percent across its value chain by 2025 (from 2010). Its Natural & Organic Operating Unit has encouraged farmers to use practices that sharply reduce impacts on water.

Clif Bar noted its focus on holistic farming practices, approaches that conserve water and avoid the use of chemical fertilizers in order to minimize farming’s impact on local water resources.

Driscoll’s, whose fresh berry business thrives on good relations with its farmers, talked about its collaborations with its farmers on ways to grow and how to preserve water quality and water availability for all who use it. Driscoll’s provides extensive education opportunities and incentives for its farmers to use practices that conserve water and minimize impacts on natural waterways.

At Ceres, we research water issues and work with companies to identify the most effective ways for them to address the local water challenges they are facing throughout their value chain.

Through an initiative launched by Ceres and the World Wildlife Fund that we call the AgWater Challenge, we highlight companies that engage in good water stewardship by working to preserve water, by replenishing fresh water sources through the restoration of watersheds and groundwater basins, and by being innovative in water reuse and finding other ways to maximize water use and promote smart water management policy. Two years ago we named seven companies as AgWater Stewards: DanoneWave, Diageo, General Mills, Hain Celestial Group, Hormel Foods, Kellogg Company and PepsiCo. In October we will be highlighting a new group of AgWater Stewards.

Many food companies and their agricultural suppliers have adopted practices that both address water quality challenges and help reduce GHG emissions – farming practices such as no-till planting, use of cover crops during off-seasons to restore soil nutrients, and multipaddock grazing. These practices can improve soil health and boost the soil’s ability to absorb carbon from the air.

Thanks to farmers who adopt conservation farming practices that address water quality challenges and reduce emissions, we are starting to see how agriculture can be part of the solution to climate change and water scarcity. We need to learn from the good work being undertaken and broaden the tent so that we get to the scale that is needed to secure our water resources.

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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