Not having grown up in California, when I moved to Fresno two years ago to take my current position as Global Head of Sustainability for Olam Spices, I was both surprised and thrilled when I learned that my new home - the Central Valley of California - is one of the world’s most productive agriculture regions.
Using less than 1% of U.S. farmland, the Central Valley produces more than 250 different crops – comprising 25% of the U.S. total food production, including 40% of the nation's fruits, nuts, and other table foods*. (*Source: https://ca.water.usgs.gov/projects/central-valley/about-central-valley.html)
But perhaps more surprising, was the fact that this food production still manages to occur in a drought-prone region. When I arrived in March 2017, the Central Valley was experiencing a desperately needed once-in-100-year rain… finally relief from the 2011-2017 drought – the worst California has experienced in 1,200 years. For large agri-businesses such as Olam, water security is therefore a business imperative and along with our contracted growers - we must make tough choices around usage.
Water stewardship begins with the quality of the seed planted in the ground, extends through the cultivation and processing of the crop, and goes beyond what we do within our own four walls. It often means trial, error and a wholesale re-imagining of agriculture!
The team here is proud to have bred the world’s highest solid-content onion allowing for a reduction of approximately 7.12bn gallons of water over the last 10 years! It goes without saying that Olam and our contracted growers employ the most advanced agtech solutions including GPS, soil moisture sensors, imaging, and highly automated drip irrigation systems. And our customers are interested in the results – they want to know that their products have the smallest footprint possible. Through our sustainable sourcing solution AtSource customers can track the environmental footprint – including water use – from our farms to their doorstep; and through this insight, help us shape real change on the ground, particularly in terms of addressing the wider needs of the landscape. And here I must give a shout out to many of the farmers and growers who don’t get enough credit for the efforts they make.
Take Bowles Farming Company – a contracted supplier to Olam Spices. This leading edge farm invests its profits to help manage the second largest contiguous wetlands in the U.S., providing habitat for migratory waterfowl. They have also restored over 6 miles of native riparian area around the farm; and planted and irrigated hundreds of acres of native plant species such as the milkweed to provide habitat for endangered species like the monarch butterfly.
Don Cameron of Terranova Ranch, another contracted grower for Olam Spices, is implementing a grant from the California Department of Water Resources, matched by major investment by the farm - to build infrastructure to capture and distribute floodwater to support on-farm groundwater re-charge. When the project is completed, Terranova will be able to recharge 1,000-acre feet (1-acre foot = 325,851 gallons or 1,233.48 cubic meters) of water per day.
But Olam and our farmers – or any organization - cannot do it alone. Water stewardship is complex, and solutions are challenging and as illustrated in previous examples - expensive to implement. We must support our farmers to create impact at scale. This is where alliances like the California Water Action Collaborative (CWAC) can offer good frameworks and support.
Over the past two and half years, I have had an amazing opportunity to participate in and support the on-going development of the CWAC. As a sustainability professional, trying to navigate the maze of water policy changes and hydrological events in California would be overwhelming without CWAC’s group of experts to make sense of it all.
Collaborating to access their insight into the legal and regulatory environment, as well as the workings of natural ecosystems, means we can learn how our water usage affects everyone and everything around us.
From researching relevant projects, to defining the methodologies for assessment, the groundwork is laid for us to focus on driving net-positive impact in the communities where we’re operating and directly impacting water availability.
Over the past 5 years, Olam has contributed to the development of the CWAC, supporting collective action projects such as the Corporate Water Stewardship and California Water Action Plan.
Last fall, Olam Spices hosted the bi-annual meeting at our Fresno headquarters, helping to organize a “learning journey” for CWAC members to trace water from its source in the Sierra Nevada Mountain headwaters to the crop fields, factories, and residential users in the Valley below.
This journey created awareness among leading corporates and NGOs of the importance of the health of our national forests, meadows, and conveyance infrastructure in ensuring the availability and quality of water for all users in the state.
I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to work with world-class farmers and participate in CWAC. My experiences have provided me with the knowledge, tools, and resources to develop strategies within our supply chains for Olam to improve our water stewardship. And it has opened my eyes about how we all need to play our part and move beyond our own four walls.
Collective action on water stewardship programmes - with our farmers, our peers, NGOs and finance institutions - is critical, in order to scale up impact through shared expertise and resource. Collaboration at the local, regional and national levels of the water basin is the only way to affect meaningful change.