This article series is sponsored by General Mills and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
From a young age, most people know the basic requirements of planting: seeds, soil, sunlight and water. Farming and water, specifically freshwater, are intrinsically linked. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals, according to the World Bank. In its 2018 Global Responsibility Report, food company General Mills identified water risk as a material issue and pledged to champion the activation of stewardship plans in its priority watersheds across its global value chain.
Jeff Hanratty, applied sustainability manager for General Mills, spoke with TriplePundit about the company’s efforts to identify and address key water risks related to agricultural production. He began by explaining how the organization created its focus on priority watersheds.
Water is an extremely localized issue, and each geographic area has its own unique challenges that affect the quantity and quality of available freshwater. As a result, in 2016 General Mills analyzed 41 watersheds affecting its supply chain globally. Using public tools including the World Wildlife Fund’s Water Risk Filter and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Global Water Tool, General Mills identified eight priority watersheds, Hanratty said.
“We selected the places around the world that have the highest water risk related to our products,” he explained. “What are the key ingredients we can’t get elsewhere? For example, 80 percent of almonds come from California, so that’s where we need to get almonds. Dairy is also location-specific. It is extremely expensive and labor/energy intensive to transport dairy great distances.”
Every few years, General Mills will reassess the risks and determine whether these watersheds are still the most urgent to focus on within the value chain. Future water risk assessments will need to take changes in products, their ingredients and their sourcing geographies into consideration.
General Mills has set a goal to “see activation of a watershed plan by 2025” in each of the eight priority watershed areas. As each area is so different, a common goal across all eight would be counterproductive, if not impossible.
Here’s a closer look at two of the current priority watersheds, and what actions are being taken toward water stewardship in each:
San Joaquin, California
The San Joaquin Valley, located in the southern two-thirds of California’s Central Valley, is one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, growing more than 250 types of crops. The region is an important supplier of food including tomatoes, dairy, raisins and almonds.
California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) put forth new guidelines to restore groundwater levels and prevent future depletion of stored water. General Mills has worked with a variety of groups to make SGMA compliance easier and more impactful.
California Water Action Collaborative (CWAC) is a collaboration of nonprofit, government, industrial and other partners joining to find common ground in protecting California’s natural resources. General Mills works with Sustainable Conservation and The Nature Conservancy to promote and support on-farm groundwater recharge. In this process, farmers can find out what times during their growing season their fields can be flooded to replenish aquifer supplies, without harming the dormant crops.
“Before on-farm groundwater recharge, California farmers could only choose between two options when there wasn’t enough water: Not farming and leaving the land fallow or farming a less valuable crop that requires less water. This opens up new options,” Hanratty said.
Additionally, last fall, General Mills worked with the Water Foundation, Stanford’s Program on Water in the West (WitW), the Environmental Defense Fund and Maven’s Notebook to fund the California Groundwater Exchange. This website is a “free, collaborative online platform designed to connect water managers, water users and community members with tools and resources to support successful implementation of SGMA.”
Ganges River, Madhya Pradesh, India
General Mills also works with The Nature Conservancy to better understand the challenges and opportunities of wheat farming in the Ganges River Watershed, located in West-Central India. While General Mills purchases only a small amount of the total wheat crop from the Ganges River watershed, it is still a priority area due to the severity of the water risk there.
Hanratty explained further in a 2018 blog post about a visit to the area: “It is not that these regions don’t get rain—they receive more than 39 inches of annual rainfall in a normal year—but almost 90 percent falls in the monsoons (from June to September). With existing water storage infrastructure and the lack of available groundwater, the farmers run out of water by January, although they harvest the wheat in March.”
Farms in India are generally far smaller than those in other countries. Whereas a typical American wheat farm may be 500 to 1,000 acres, the average Indian farm is five to 10 acres, as it has typically been passed down through generations and split among children. As a result, community resources are crucial for these farmers.
Individual farmers may not have the means to invest in large water management systems on their own, but by joining together, they can share in the costs while also sharing in knowledge and best practices. As a potential solution, General Mills is investigating advancing The Nature Conservancy’s Water Fund model in this part of India as it has been successful in similar areas.
“The most critical success factor [is] cooperation amongst farmers to organize and share resources,” Hanratty wrote. “Every farmer we interviewed said if they had more water, and better water management resources, their yields would improve and, in turn, their livelihoods.”
For food companies a global water ambition is important, turning it into local watershed-based action is even more important to achieve impact on water risk.
Image credit: Flickr/tinyfroglet