Insight: no future without sustainable agriculture

May 2, 2012
Peter Brabeck-Letmathe (left)

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

By 2050, the world will have to feed more than nine billion people. To meet this demand, current levels of global food production must double.

This is not a new issue. Ten years ago, Nestlé was one of three major consumer goods manufacturers to found the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative, the only global food industry initiative for sustainable agriculture.

We knew that as the world’s population continued to grow, and millions of consumers became increasingly affluent, a shortage of quality agricultural raw materials would put not only our business, but also global food production, at risk.


Sharing knowledge

When the SAI platform was set up in 2002, the aim was to share knowledge and initiatives to support the development and implementation of sustainable agriculture practices.

We had already started a sustainable agriculture initiative at Nestlé a year earlier, but we recognised that we could not encourage change in agriculture on our own.

We believed by working with other companies to define common principles, and to implement these with suppliers, we could begin to solve some of the problems we shared.


Working with farmers

One of the biggest challenges we faced - then and now - is how to ensure the farmers who supply us comply with these sustainable principles and standards.

Over the past 12 years we have continuously increased our work with farmers in sustainable agriculture practices.

Today, more than 680,000 farmers are part of our supply chain, mainly smallholders in more than 50 countries.

Our ‘farmer connect’ programmes have in turn provided us with the insight needed to develop our other suppliers’ practices.

They are the foundation of the responsible sourcing programme we use today to assess key vendors against our supplier code and help them make their activities more sustainable.

This way of working with our suppliers is part of our creating shared value approach to business. We believe that for a company to be successful in the long term, it must create value for its shareholders at the same time as the communities where it operates.


Better engagement

A decade on, the SAI now comprises 40 members, ranging from other multinational companies to cooperatives and farmers organisations.

Through the platform, we have learned how to better engage with different stakeholders, including non- government and inter-governmental organisations.

Common communication on specific issues has helped all members to better understand our businesses and the environment in which we operate.


Chronic water shortage

There are still many challenges ahead. Many more unacceptable unsustainable practices have to be changed, or even eradicated.

The greatest of these challenges is global water consumption. It is the issue of our lifetime; one I believe is still underestimated.

Today, agriculture is responsible for 70% of world water withdrawals. This is where we believe the main risk to food production lies: massive shortfalls in the volumes of water needed to grow the amount of raw materials required.

But this is also where we see huge potential for transformation. The amount of water withdrawn by agriculture is almost 2.5 times the amount needed by plants, so massive savings can - and must - still be made.

If we are to significantly reduce global water consumption, initiatives have to be taken at local level, but driven at government level.


Producing more, wasting less

Another major challenge is waste. Sustainable agriculture means using natural, renewable resources without wasting, polluting and destroying them.

Roughly one third of food for human consumption is lost or wasted globally across the entire food chain every year. This amounts to more than one billion tonnes.

We need to find more sustainable agricultural production methods that increase production, while wasting less, and without turning natural ecosystems into areas of new farm land.


Catalyst for change

While we are still a long way from solving all our shared problems, the SAI has shown us that if the food industry unites around sustainable agriculture issues, it can be an effective catalyst for change.

But industry can’t work in isolation. We all have a part to play: governments can set the direction, businesses can invest and innovate, and civil society can mobilise communities.

As we look ahead to the next ten years, it seems wrong to talk about ‘the future of sustainable agriculture’. Simply put, there is no future without sustainable agriculture.


Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is Nestlé's Chairman. He gave a keynote speech at an event to mark the tenth anniversary of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative in Evian, France, today.

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