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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Collaboration Drives Water Stewardship Forward in the Food Sector

Through the AgWater Challenge, food and beverage companies are building collaborative relationships with their stakeholders centered on water stewardship.
By Kate Zerrenner
water stewardship in agriculture

By 2025, around 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. Because the agricultural sector accounts for around 70 percent of all freshwater use, it must play a significant part in protecting and preserving water quality and quantity. Promoting water stewardship is a heavy lift that requires shifting the way agriculture has traditionally been run, but some food companies are building partnerships and setting goals to ensure there is enough water for both their operations and the communities they serve.

Behind many of these connections is the AgWater Challenge, launched by Ceres and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2016 to facilitate partnerships between food and beverage companies and their stakeholders. The Challenge has already bred dozens of multi-stakeholder collaborations, helping companies, suppliers, and communities set measurable and achievable goals to reduce their water demand and improve sustainability in the agricultural supply chain. Hormel Foods, a founding member of the AgWater Challenge, is one company that’s upping its goals and expanding what it means to be a water steward while mitigating its own risk.

Forging watershed partnerships creates positive impact

When we think of corporate water stewardship, we often go straight to the manufacturing plants. And while that’s where the operational reductions will happen, companies taking interest and investing in the protection of the watersheds where they do business is common-sense stewardship that drives the far-reaching impact needed to address water scarcity. 

To understand what that means in practice, let’s break down just one example: In 2018, Hormel Foods and Land O’Lakes joined other public, private, and nonprofit partners in the Cedar River Watershed Partnership to address water quality and quantity issues in the Cedar River area of southern Minnesota, the first collaboration of its kind in the state. “At its heart, the partnership was an opportunity to improve the stakeholder process and to protect the watershed,” said Tom Raymond, director of environmental sustainability at Hormel Foods. 

“We all had the same goal: to protect the quality and quantity of the water in the Cedar River,” Raymond said, “but each partner had different paths to reach the end goal. It seemed everybody was knocking on the same door seven times.” So, Hormel Foods and the other partners combined each other’s strengths to make the process more streamlined and efficient with clear end goals. “Nobody knows the area better than the watershed district and the ag retailers had the best relationships with growers,” Raymond explained. “Land O’Lakes is excellent at in-field evaluation, the state Ag Department can certify water quality, and we at Hormel Foods could bring our world-class communication and facilitation tools to bring everyone together.”

Though the stakeholders weren’t sure whether the enterprise would work, the partnership has become a recognized success in streamlining sustainability in the region’s watershed by providing tools and resources for farmers, including helping them get certified through the state’s Agricultural Water Quality Certification program. Future plans could include how to scale up the partnership to neighboring watersheds or even to other states.

Measurable and comprehensive goals are key to water stewardship

Having measurable, time-bound goals are also an essential component of any effective water stewardship program. Food and beverage manufacturing companies touch water at several points along their supply and operations chains. On this front, in 2011 Hormel Foods set a public goal for internal water management within their manufacturing boundaries to reduce water use by 10 percent by 2020, using 2011 as the base year. The company met its goal two years ahead of schedule and continues to realize reductions by embedding the goal into programs, processes and using peer reviews.

Hormel Foods is in the process of developing new goals for the next time horizon, this time to include organic waste reduction and a broader participation in watershed management, in line with its involvement in the Cedar River Watershed Partnership. Raymond says the company hopes to expand these goals into other manufacturing and live production operations, including high-risk areas and supply chain inputs, increasing both stakeholder feedback and educational opportunities for suppliers.

Comprehensive goals are critical, too: If a company focuses solely on one resource, e.g., water, it may miss opportunities. While a lot of production processes require direct use of water, they also require electricity to power them. Traditional sources of energy, such as coal and natural gas, use substantial amounts of water to generate electricity, while solar and wind power use only negligible amount. In its planning, Hormel Foods is also looking at climate goals that incorporate both water and energy, as well as deploying more solar at its facilities and accounting for the water savings embedded there as well. For example, in December 2019, Hormel Foods completed a solar project at a facility in California: The nearly 2,000-panel project is expected to generate about 1.2 million kilowatt-hours per year, enough to power more than 15 percent of the plant’s annual electricity consumption. It will also save an estimated 600,000 gallons of water per year.

The bottom line: Water stewardship helps companies — and communities — to thrive 

The key to ensuring sustainable water resources for both our businesses and our communities is a broad vision and bold action. Raymond is quick to note that at Hormel Foods, environmental and economic goals are not in competition with each other. “It requires all hands on deck,” he told TriplePundit. “We’re dealing with very complex technical and practical issues as we figure out how to make our food journey more sustainable.” As access to food and supply chains come into sharper focus for everyone during this pandemic, it’s important to highlight how to ensure the sector is protecting essential resources for all consumers.

This article series is sponsored by Hormel Foods and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image credit: Foto Phanatic/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner