Photograph: Martin Harvey/WWF
WWF research concludes that sustainability standards can only go so far to prevent agricultural supply chains from running dry.
Globally, the agricultural sector consumes about 70% of the planet’s accessible freshwater – more than twice that of industry, and dwarfing municipal use. The 2015 Global Risks Report of the World Economic Forum ranked water the greatest potential economic impact risk.
Likewise, WWF research indicates that 40% of the UK’s imports come from areas of high water risk. Sustainable business managers know water is an issue, but knowing is one thing, effectively addressing such risks is another.
Does certification mean solution?
One of the primary actions seen over the past decade has been the considerable growth of sustainability standards in agriculture – the Better Cotton Initiative, Bonsucro, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Round Table on Responsible Soy, Organic, Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance.
All of these standards touch upon water issues, as do practically all agricultural sustainability standards, but to what extent are they mitigating supply chain water risk?
Are organic strawberry producers in California insulated against the ongoing and largest drought in 1,200 years due to their certification? Are Rainforest Alliance certified coffee producers in Colombia insulated from flooding risks due to theirs?
No standard or certification can reasonably be expected to fully mitigate water risks. That said, agricultural sustainability standards do have a range of requirements that progresively address water risks to varying degrees.
Traditional approaches have revolved around the notion of water management. Ensure your irrigation is efficient, minimise your chemical and pesticide inputs, obey the law and ensure you have a strip of vegetation beside any river you might border. In other words, ensure that your farm does not adversely affect others.
What has been missing is more robust thinking about how others affect you and, in turn, what actions can address such catchment-based risks. This gap led to the emergence of a concept now commonly referred to as water stewardship.
This is defined by the Alliance for Water Stewardship as “the use of water that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial, achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site and catchment-based actions.” Simply put, water stewardship extends water management to the surrounding catchment by working with others.
WWF’s report released today, Strengthening Water Stewardship in Agricultural Sustainability Standards, examines 23 different standards and concludes that certified operations remain at risk from water.
While many standards have robust water quality and efficiency requirements, they need to strengthen efforts on water governance, collaboration and resiliency against extreme weather to better mitigate against water risks. Even though all standards continue to emphasise on-site actions, little attention is paid to how producers may be affected by risks originating elsewhere in the river basin.
Water risks are far from ubiquitous. From crop to crop, region to region and time to time, water risks are constantly in flux, making responses a complex challenge. It makes little sense to require highly efficient irrigation in an area that is water abundant; water quality concerns are less of a business risk when you are the only operator in a catchment. Accordingly, solutions must be customised.
A range of innovative practices suggest there are considerable opportunities for learning between standards. These include encouraging collaboration between standards as well as with businesses and NGOs to establish more efficient, effective solutions and developing tailored guidance using a risk-based approach via tools such as the Water Risk Filter either within standards or in addition to standards. This makes sense especially for crops that only face water risks in certain regions.
For crops that commonly rely upon extensive irrigation or for those crops that are broadly exposed to water risks because of where they are grown, strengthening a standard’s requirements may also be worthwhile, especially requirements that address critical water risks.
Improving food systems is essential to ensuring water for all. Ultimately each scheme needs to select a pathway that works for their circumstances. In the same way that global retailers manage their supply chains, so too do farmers. However, in the case of growers, their “supply chains” are elements of a catchment: soils, water, sunlight and temperatures.
As global businesses increasingly address their water risks by engaging and supporting their suppliers, farmers also need to be increasingly aware of their catchments and support those ecosystem services that are difficult to replace. After all, nobody – neither businesses nor growers – wants to be caught out when their supply chain runs dry.
Read more here