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The name of the small French farming town of Vittel is known around the world, thanks to its natural resource; water.

Preserving that pure water source – and the ecosystems that it flows through - concerns Christophe Klotz on a day-to-day basis. He heads Agrivair, a subsidiary of Nestlé Waters France, working to ensure the quality of source Vittel.

Aiming for zero pesticides

Ensuring clean water for everyone on Earth is the sixth of the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and there have already been huge strides forward in the availability of drinking water.

Another key component of the overall goal is the need to protect and restore water-related ecosystems by 2020.

Nestlé began working in the watershed around Vittel more than 25 years ago, in conjunction with Europe’s top agricultural research institute, INRA – the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. The two brought together a broad range of interested parties to preserve the quality and purity of the natural springs. This kind of project is what water experts call 'water stewardship' – where local interests work together to protect water resources for everyone’s benefit.

Agrivair was set up to consult farmers, businesses, scientists, local authorities, charities, tourist organisations and residents. The idea behind the project was to protect the quality of soil and biodiversity by eliminating the use of pesticides.

Pollution fears

Pesticides and other plant protection products play a significant role in food production. They protect yields and affect the number of times per year a crop can be grown on the same land.

Mineral water is unique in that it can’t be treated. So if the water is polluted, it’s too late. Christophe Klotz, Head of Agrivair

However, residues from these products can remain in the soil for many years. It is this worry about residues, together with wanting to anticipate and avoid any potential deterioration in the purity of Vittel water, that initially led Nestlé to set up Agrivair.

"Mineral water is unique in that it can’t be treated. So if the water is polluted, it’s too late," says Christophe Klotz, head of Agrivair.

"Water supports all the livelihoods in this entire area. So it’s a good that definitely warrants us all getting together around the table," he explains.

Give and take

Farmers have been asked to no longer use pesticides and to limit the number of cattle to one cow per hectare of land. In return, Agrivair has sourced land and made it freely available to farmers as well as providing free composting and manure-spreading services. It also offers advice on technology and finance for agricultural development, as well as researching the best possible crop rotations.

At the same time, Nestlé Waters has reduced the amount of water it takes from source Vittel by 25% to help ensure the long -term sustainability of water resources in the area. The entire Agrivair project now covers almost 10,000 hectares in the Vosges region of France.

Vittel Agrivair video

It is a 'rare relationship' according to Marc Benoît from INRA, adding that it has not always been easy to find results that work for both farmers and a mineral water company.

All this helps make sure that farmers are able to maintain their net income despite all the changes, by still producing the same amount of milk for example.

One farmer involved in the scheme, Dominique Sautré, described it as a win-win, saying he now has peace of mind that his livelihood is protected for the next 30 years at the same time as Nestlé knows its water is not being contaminated.

We don’t want to bring up our children like we were brought up. We have a different relationship with the planet, and I feel like we want to instil that in our children. Benjamin Mathieu, Farmer

Local farmer Benjamin Mathieu, says that there is a growing realisation among farmers that they need to work the land without destroying it.

Mr Mathieu is now replanting the hedgerows that were pulled up 40 years ago. His new plantings are some of the 80 kilometers- almost 50 miles- of hedgerows that have been replanted since 2013 around farming operations in the region, as part of Agrivair’s public-private partnership with the National Office of Forestry (ONF).

"We don’t want to bring up our children like we were brought up," he says. "We have a different relationship with the planet, and I feel like we want to instil that in our children."

Such partnerships – taking the time to listen and understand the need of many different parties in order to work together – really are the way to protect the environment for future generations.