Cargill, the giant food and ag conglomerate, last week announced a new set of 2030 corporate water targets, the latest to do so among firms in its sector.
But this was no me-too kind of endeavor. Rather, it put the company at the front of the pack, going well beyond its own operational footprint to engage its entire supply chain, and to do so using a novel science-based approach for water.
Specifically, Cargill said that by the end of the decade it would restore about 158 billion gallons of water, reduce about 5,500 tons of water pollutants and boost access to safe drinking water — all in what it refers to as priority watersheds, regions around the world where the company has a significant operational or supply-chain water footprint.
This isn’t small potatoes. Agriculture represents about 80 percent of freshwater use in the United States and about 70 percent globally. Ag also is a major contributor both to water pollution and climate change; the water sector, which includes the collection and treatment of wastewater, accounts for 4 percent of total global electricity consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. Few food and ag companies have taken on the full measure of their water footprint the way Cargill seems to have done, and by using a science-based approach.
"If there's a more robust enterprise level ambition for water, I haven't seen it," said Jason Morrison, CEO of the Pacific Institute and head of the United Nations CEO Water Mandate, who advised on the project. "This is a really impressive piece of work that they've done and a pretty ambitious commitment they're making. It's got a lot to it."
If there's a more robust enterprise level ambition for water, I haven't seen it.
Cargill has made water commitments in the past, but they covered only the company’s direct operations, a relative drop in the bucket of the water needed to bring to market the $114 billion or so of products and services it sells each year.
About a year ago, the company set out on a journey to understand its water risks relative to its supply chain and operations, explained Jill Kolling, the company’s vice president for global sustainability. "Where does water really matter for us in our business?" she explained to me recently. "And where should we really be putting our efforts?" The goal, she said, "was to come out of this and have some aspirational goals to work against and also to make sure we're working where it matters most. So, having that strong prioritization, backed up by science."
Science-based targets have become de rigueur in setting corporate greenhouse gas commitments. In effect, they ask what level of carbon reductions represents a company’s fair share, given its contribution to the climate problem. It was inevitable that this approach eventually be applied to water. Indeed, for the past two years a group called the Science-Based Targets Network has been looking at how to apply such methodologies to a range of environmental impacts, including water.
But water is unlike climate gases in several fundamental ways. First, water is inherently local, with droughts in some areas and a surfeit in others. With climate gases, any improvement anywhere in the world helps alleviate the global problem; not so with water. Water is also temporal, with conditions changing throughout the year and from year to year, based on both normal and abnormal climatic shifts. And while the aggregate amount of available water is important, so is its quality. Having millions of gallons of water isn’t helpful if it is toxic, brackish or otherwise unsuited for human use.
Rivers of data
In the case of Cargill, these and other factors were applied not just to its own operation, but also to its more than 250,000 suppliers, ranging from multinational corporations to single-family farms in developing nations. They provide the raw materials for everything from cocoa and cotton to salmon feed and sweeteners.
Cargill already had dipped its toes into water issues. It has invested in such programs as the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, which helps farmers adopt soil health and water conservation practices. It also participates in the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative’s efforts to support and accelerate sustainable agricultural practices in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, including on improving water quality across the Upper Mississippi River Basin, which supports nearly 44 percent of U.S. corn, soy and wheat production. Still another Cargill initiative is BeefUp Sustainability, which focuses in part on restoring grasslands, which perform many ecosystem services including filtering water.
To develop its latest commitments, the company turned to World Resources Institute, with which it had previously worked on water issues. The first step was to aggregate the data Cargill needed to prioritize locally relevant decisions. "We've got globally comparable data on water risks that we help companies leverage in order to look at water risks to their supply chain, and now increasingly use that same data to help think through what an effective science-based target could look like," Sara Walker, WRI’s senior manager, water quality and agriculture, told me.
"They’re kind of our science partner," Kolling said of WRI. "What they bring to the table is datasets, tools and scientists who are able to help do the analysis. It's also good to have an NGO partner working with you to push you to be more aspirational. They've provided tremendous guidance through this."
"There’s quite a lot of good data out there," explained Truke Smoor, director of water at Cargill. "But if you look at the number of companies who have said they want data for water quality and costs, for both operations and the supply chain, you see there are very few."
600 billion liters — it’s insanely large. It's more than the total amount of water that we use in all our operations.
That may be in large part because the available data isn’t always consistent across watersheds and borders. Smoor said that Cargill ended up "combining a global data set with a better data set for the U.S. to meet our needs. And now we have the data we need to help us prioritize."
The commitments Cargill settled on were stretch goals, Smoor said. For example: "Six hundred billion liters — it’s insanely large. It's more than the total amount of water that we use in all our operations. So, we’re basically offsetting double our total water use in those priority water systems in the regions where it's needed most."
Down on the farm
In some ways, getting the data was the easy part. Working with farmers — from Big Ag behemoths to smallholders in far-flung economies — is another matter. Promoting change can be hard work, although some farmers are beginning to realize the need to adapt new kinds of practices to ensure the long-term viability of local water supplies.
"I think farmers are starting to realize that it's ultimately the consumer who's starting to care more and more about this," Kolling said. "Over the coming years, those pressures and those desires from consumers to want to know more about how their food was produced and having greater expectations, we believe it's going to grow and will continue to trickle back to the farmer. I think some of those more resistant farmers may realize that this is the way things are going."
Most farmers aren’t yet feeling those market impacts, she said, but there are other compelling arguments for their linking arms with Cargill on water. "At the end of the day, farmers are businessmen and women," Kolling said. Toward that end, her company is helping farmers understand the business case today for improving water management practices, ranging from improving soil health to ensuring community water supplies. "It helps us make the change we want to make for the environment and for social and economic reasons."
And, of course, there’s climate change. Specifically, its relationship to both water quality and quantity, as well as the role of farming in sequestering carbon dioxide, which, in turn, improves soil health.
"Water is so critical for nature, for agriculture, for communities," Smoor said. "And it has that synergies with climate change."
For example, she said, "Look at soil health practices. They help in carbon sequestration and they help in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That is tied to fertilizer use, water quality and runoff. So, soil health practices provide water quality benefits. And through increasing soil moisture, we actually make sure that more water can recharge, so you have improved water availability. They really go hand in hand, which is such a powerful thing. Through combining these, you have so many touchpoints, whether it’s through farmers or regulators or the community."
As with every sustainability issue, one company’s leadership action is but a start. It will take collective action to achieve global goals, but also to ensure each company’s efforts aren’t undermined. For example, Cargill’s water conservation efforts in a particular basin may be for naught if other companies, large or small, aren’t similarly engaged there.
In April, Cargill announced that it would contribute $2 million to the next phase of its partnership with WRI. The two entities said they will combine their expertise to accelerate the development and improvement of tools, including a new Water Management Toolkit, to enable companies to set science-based targets for water. The toolkit "will allow us to address shared water challenges and promote sustainable water use within planetary boundaries across the industry," they said in a statement.
Cargill is already making its methodology publicly available. "We're hoping we can invite others — customers, competitors, whomever — to collaborate with us where their sourcing and focus may intersect with our same watersheds," Smoor said.
But companies seem to be uncertain about when to jump into the pool. "We're getting a lot of questions from companies like, ‘Should I wait for better data or should I wait for the Science-Based Target Network to tell me what exactly to do?’" WRI’s Walker said. "We're really trying to encourage companies to act now. I think Cargill is a good example of this."
On the other hand, Smoor said, companies can wait until — some day.
"You can continue to analyze everything forever, and especially in water, with all the different aspects. You can get stuck in risk analysis. You can get stuck in needing better data. Our approach is, we’re starting now; we're going to drive the change. We will validate if we are doing the right thing."