Inside Mars' meaningful, material approaches to water stewardship

A view of the terraced rice paddies of Leepa Valley in Pakistan. Rice is one of the most water-intensive crops sourced by Mars.

Water scarcity is a complex issue that’s become a top priority for major food companies with global supply chains.

Science tells us that agricultural irrigation required for food production is a major driver of global water scarcity. In fact, according to U.N. Water, agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources. It's estimated that global water demand (PDF) will increase by 55 percent by 2050, and more than 40 percent of the global population will be living in areas of severe water stress by 2050. This will have serious social and environmental implications that businesses will need to address in order to remain sustainable, avoid supply disruptions and maintain the social and legal licenses to operate.

The food industry needs a better approach to improve global water and food security, and to support sustainable agriculture and development. At Mars, we believe there is a strong business case for corporate water stewardship, as increased water scarcity will continue to make agricultural inputs, which are vital to the survival of our business, more difficult to source and food products more expensive to produce and buy.

A unique perspective and responsibility

Companies are recognizing how critical it is to set water targets that are meaningful and material to their business — targets that are not only scientifically rigorous but that also take into account local watershed issues and the social context of where they operate. It's also important that corporate water targets align with global policy goals, such as the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. This is where Context-Based Water Targets (CBWTs) come in to play.

Creating CBWTs is no simple task. Today, there are too many ways companies measure their water impacts and too few examples to emulate and scale. While tools and methodologies for setting CBWTs and measuring companies' water footprints are under development, this work is still in its infancy compared to what’s available to help companies measure their carbon footprint.

At Mars, we have a diverse global supply chain sourcing cereals, fats and oils, ground and tree nuts, meat and fish, dairy products and specialty commodities such as sugar, cocoa and mint for the products we make and sell. This means our business is exposed to a broad range of agricultural sectors and geographies, which has enabled us to gain valuable perspectives into how water stress is affecting agriculture globally.

The biggest water footprint for us is in the irrigation of agricultural commodities for food products. For instance, rice products for our Uncle Ben’s brand are especially water-intensive. And because much of our rice is sourced from water-stressed locations in India, Pakistan and Spain, rice represents over 50 percent of the water use in Mars' value chain that we regard as being unsustainable. For this reason, we've committed to working with stakeholders to standardize ways to calculate benefits from water stewardship projects so that the whole industry can benefit.

Moving from water management to innovation

In their new book, "Water Stewardship and Business Value: Creating Abundance from Scarcity," water experts William Sarni and David Grant encourage businesses to measure the business value of water and integrate water-food-energy considerations into business growth in order to move toward positive societal impact. (You can read an excerpt here.)

Many companies start with water management, focused on compliance with water regulations and maximizing operational water efficiency. Most remain in this space, while some outliers progress toward water stewardship. As water stewards, companies take their entire value chain into consideration when addressing their water impacts and sometimes begin to participate in collective action at the watershed level. An exceptional few take it even further, moving toward an innovation approach by integrating water considerations into their business and financial models, and building stakeholder ecosystems to address water impacts on a larger scale.

Mars is on the path to innovative water resource management. We started out in water management for our direct operations, first with a total global water reduction target and then with a target focused on our sites in stressed watersheds. We’re advanced into water stewardship when we mapped our value chain to the point of origin to better understand our impacts and came up with our Sustainable in a Generation water withdrawal goal (a CBWT) that strives to make significant reductions in our agricultural irrigation in water-stressed areas. Our long-term ambition is to ensure water use in our value chain is within annually renewable levels by watershed. In support of this target, we have set a short-term goal to cut unsustainable water use by half by 2025 and in the long term to eliminate it. We also have started to build our understanding of the catchment level shared water challenges that affect our high priority factories in water-stressed areas.

Mars is starting to move toward an innovation approach. An example of this is our work on rice. As a leading member of the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), with partners such as U.N. Environment, the International Rice Research Institute and WWF, we're supporting 500 basmati rice farmers in Pakistan to improve productivity and reduce water use. And the results can be significant. In Pakistan, we already have seen a 32 percent increase in farmer income and a 30 percent reduction in water use since our project began in 2016.

Also in 2016, we achieved a major milestone by sourcing all our basmati rice from SRP farmers, and we are working to expand these practices to rice farmers outside our supply chain to the benefit of the wider community. This work brings project partners together in order to integrate rice growers into a more effective rice value chain by providing them with better access to technology, knowledge and training and linking them better to markets.

The road ahead

If being innovative water stewards is our ultimate destination, we have a lot of work to do. We know that our current CBWT isn't perfect and that collaboration with others is vital in key watersheds where we have activities, in order to agree on the water challenges being faced, what needs to be done to address these challenges and the appropriate role for different sectors. And while we regard the geographic water stress data (WRI’s Aqueduct) that we base our target on as being the best practically available, we know it has limitations. However, we decided that it was better to set an imperfect target and start work making improvements now, rather than wait for better data to support better targets.

At Mars, we believe in being transparent about the methodologies, tools and solutions we are exploring. A number of the most significant will be the subject of sessions at World Water Week (WWW) in Stockholm. For example, we've been asked to share learnings from Mars' participation in collaborative work to pilot CBWTs in California at the CEO Water Mandate multi-stakeholder meeting during WWW in a session titled "Understanding the Context for Effective Water Stewardship."

Many leading food and beverage companies including Nestlé, Danone, Coca-Cola and Mars — together with leading water-focused NGOs — are supporting the Water Benefits Accounting Methodology Project to standardize how the benefits of water stewardship projects are measured. An alliance of the leading water-focused NGOs, including WWF, CDP, WRI and the Pacific Institute, are developing a methodology to set CBWTs.

Other important ongoing initiatives are being supported or followed with interest by Mars. These include version 2 of the influential AWS International Standard, WRI's Aqueduct V3.0 and Aqueduct Commodities, WRI/Sloan's investigation into how public water management data can be crowd-sourced from corporate facility water risk assessments and WSP/WRI's work to allow electricity users to account for the water impacts of the electricity they purchase.

A drop in the bucket isn’t enough

If our water journey has taught us anything, it's that incremental change isn't sufficient. We encourage companies in the food industry, especially if they have irrigated crops in their value chain, to join us at the table. Membership in the Alliance for Water Stewardship and disclosure of water impacts via CDP are good starting points to build transparency and expertise on water and to begin to collaborate with others to address shared water challenges.

For U.N. Global Compact members, signing the CEO Water Mandate is a positive way of connecting with companies and NGOs that are leading the thinking on how the corporate sector can contribute to the delivery of the water related Sustainable Development Goals.

While we have a lot to learn about innovative water resource management, we look forward to collaborating with NGO partners, policymakers, suppliers and communities to move toward a more sustainable water future together.

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