Shopping for groceries has never been trickier: An average western supermarket now boasts between 400 and 500 different fresh fruit and vegetable items year round. No wonder making the right choice can be difficult at times. Increasingly, shoppers are also concerned about origin, convenience and the quality of the produce. The claim “sustainably sourced” becomes a quality seal. Food safety remains a topic of highest importance for consumers; in the consumers’ perception, often times safety is particularly linked to the level of plant protection residues. “Our food has never been safer, but people are frequently more worried about plant protection product residues than about salmonella and mold in food, which pose the much bigger and more direct threat,” explains Silke Friebe, Head of Food Chain Management at Bayer. “Our goal is to inform the public, create trust and alleviate unnecessary fears by communicating jointly with our partners the positive results we have achieved in our collaborations,” she continues.
A Global Success
Consumer attention to food production matters is nothing new. Public concern about food safety and chemical crop protection residue peaked in 2005, which caused the food retail industry to get more involved in the food production system of its suppliers. This gave birth to the ‘Food Chain Partnership’ concept at Bayer – a holistic vehicle to implement Bayer’s integrated crop solutions with all Food Chain Partners: growers, exporters, importers, processors and retailers. Experts from Bayer started to work closely with the value chain at that time, especially around advisory of agricultural practices and optimization of plant protection.
“Thinking about the global food chain means considering all the hands involved, and it means thinking about all the people behind it and the demands they have to face every day,” states Silke Friebe. “What started 10 years ago as a targeted reaction to the public concern about residues has grown into something much bigger. The program has become a global success with over 70 Food Chain Managers, partnerships in 40 different countries and 30 different covered crops,” explains Friebe.
Partnerships and sustainable agriculture are a journey of continuous improvement.
One such success story is the Food Chain Partnership with the SIESA Group in Guatemala. “We are one of the main exporters of vegetables to the UK and U.S. and have contracts with 17 certified groups of producers while being additionally involved with more than 1,200 small-scale farmers,” says Edgar Garcia, SIESA’s Production Manager. “What drives our business is the desire to increase consumption of safe, high-quality vegetables in our export markets,” he adds. The vegetables grown by SIESA in the highlands of Guatemala include sugar snap peas, hand-shelled peas, runner beans, French beans, broad beans and tender-stem broccoli. These vegetables are mainly exported to the UK and U.S., where consumers demand high-quality produce grown in a sustainable, safe and traceable way.
What drives our business is the desire to increase consumption of safe, high-quality vegetables in our export markets.
“Many retailers are also demanding socially and environmentally responsible farming practices from their suppliers,” explains Silke Friebe. This sparked a Food Chain Partnership between the SIESA Group and Bayer starting in 2008. “As Guatemala’s export markets were not only increasing in size but also in sophistication, the demand for high-quality and safe produce was also growing,” says SIESA’s Edgar Garcia. To satisfy this market, Guatemalan vegetable farmers and exporters wanted to use the latest technology to apply crop protection products and to implement sustainable farming practices. The results are impressive: an increase in exportable produce of 20 percent, a reduction in the number of crop protection product applications of around 10 percent, and reduced contamination from empty product containers. “All the project partners have enjoyed clear benefits,” says Garcia. The vegetable farmers are producing more exportable produce and receiving higher prices; SIESA is safeguarding its market shares by exporting safe products; and their retailers can promote product quality and safety to their domestic customers. But there’s a further, invaluable benefit: “The project has contributed to the economic development of rural areas in Guatemala. It has improved household incomes, allowing the families to send their children to schools. It has also provided infrastructural measures and services, thus preventing rural migration by creating new jobs,” adds Friebe.
Indian Table Grapes
A similar Food Chain Partnership was also implemented in Maharashtra, India. The state is India’s hot spot for table grape production and accounts for 80 percent of national exports. But trade, particularly to Europe, has always been challenging due to increasingly strict requirements laid down by European supermarkets. In 2010, the identification of chlormequat chloride residues in Indian table grapes further diminished their export potential and led to a significant reduction in the overall export volume to Europe. Therefore, Bayer and the UNIVEG Group, a worldwide supplier of fresh produce, decided to work together to promote the sustainable production of high-quality Indian grapes.
We achieved significant improvements in the quality and productivity of the grape production thanks to everyone’s commitment.
Indian Table Grapes
The first step was to build up confidence among all the stakeholders: “It was very important to convince the growers about the whole approach and the initiative itself,” remembers Ben Horsburgh, Director of Quality Management at UNIVEG. Next, Bayer developed a crop protection schedule for table grapes. Due importance was given to critical success factors such as maximum residue levels in the EU, approved usage of products and recommendations by India’s National Research Centre for Grapes (NRCG), Post-Harvest Intervals (PHI), as well as the past experience of the growers and historical data from residue-testing laboratories. Bayer also supported the growers in good agricultural practices and disease and pest management by sharing weather data.
One cube of sugar
To ensure traceability of the produce from the farm onwards, a pilot run by Bayer used an electronic platform to record all of the farmers’ spraying practices. Finally, at harvesting, UNIVEG experts advised and trained the farmers and exporters in harvesting, grading and packing the grapes to comply with the requirements of the various supermarkets. “We achieved significant improvements in the quality and productivity of the grape production thanks to everyone’s commitment,” emphasizes Horsburgh. Farmers were able to increase their average exportable yields by 15–20 percent, and overall plant protection costs were reduced by 10–15 percent by optimizing the number of spray applications. “In short, this Food Chain Partnership resulted in the production of better quality table grapes that UNIVEG was able to develop in line with the European supermarkets’ requirements,” summarizes Friebe.
In other, more advanced parts of the world, the Food Chain Partnership initiative has led to the development of a new tool that measures the progress in sustainability already achieved by food producers. It is called the ‘Bayer Sustainability Radar’, a tool which gives the Food Chain Partners the opportunity to identify and measure specific progress where they have already improved their agricultural practices. It helps them to track if their company is on the right path to become an even more successful, sustainable farming business. For John Said, CEO of Fresh Select, a vegetables producing company near Melbourne, Australia, the Sustainability Radar is also a kind of educational system: “The more people we educate, the better and more sustainable we are. And the improvements achieved so far with the support of the Food Chain Partnership team are really overwhelming.”
In John Said’s case, the Partnership extends to his cultivation of cauliflower, broccoli and a large variety of lettuce. “We’ve been farming vegetables for 40 years, growing 16 lines of vegetables in three states of Australia,” he says proudly. Currently, Said’s farmer-owned and operated enterprise, Fresh Select, is farming 3,000 hectares “with some great assistance from Bayer,” he says. “By entering the Food Chain Partnership in 2012, we saw a very clear advantage in what Bayer could offer: not only chemicals but also understanding what needs to be done to run a successful sustainable business.” Through the Partnership, Fresh Select now receives customized, integrated solutions based on effective chemical and biological crop protection products. Fresh Select also benefits from complementary services regarding environmental protection, efficiency and safety. In Said’s case, the latter is especially important: “The Food Chain Partnership is not only about maintaining high quality and low residues. Sustainably managing natural resources such as soil and water are an equally important aspect,” explains Friebe. Both resources are limited in Australia and this can be extremely challenging for John Said and his team: “No soil, no growing. This is rather simple,” he says. The Food Chain Partnership team supports Fresh Select with a soil health program that requires composting activity, for example. In addition, they also use alternative cropping and crop rotation to gain back soil. Another one of John Said’s paramount concerns is water management: “We know the challenges involved in growing with little available water here in Australia. Today, we are much more sensible regarding our water levels and we use better systems. For example, we use irrigation technology that allows us to irrigate through the night, so we have less deprivation during the heat of the day.”
The more people we educate, the better and more sustainable we are.
Similar thoughts go through Gregorio Aznar’s mind every day. His family farming business, Antas Export, is situated in the heart of Andalusia, Spain. “It’s a paradise for citrus fruits. We have endless hours of sunshine and extensive land,” says Aznar. “Nonetheless, we face the challenge of water scarcity on a daily basis.” As with Fresh Select in Australia, the Food Chain Partnership with Antas Export also focuses on improving resource efficiency in agriculture. This includes better irrigation technology combined with customized integrated solutions such as tailored chemical and biological crop protection products, and other complementary services. Antas Export has been partnering with Bayer since 2014. The Andalusian company’s lemons, oranges and clementines are mainly exported to countries such as Germany and Italy. “It is a small business, but we do quite a lot,” Gregorio Aznar says proudly. “Bayer helps us implement sustainable practices and produce high-quality food,” he adds.
“These are just a few examples,” notes Silke Friebe. Today, the Food Chain Partnership projects are covering every region of the world and many different crops. “We are already well established in fruits and vegetables, and now our approach is gaining momentum in crops such as rice, cereals, corn, sugarcane and oil crops,” says Friebe. The small team from ten years ago has grown into a global network of dedicated Key Relation Managers as well as regional and local Food Chain Managers. Silke Friebe is certain this success story is just the beginning: “Partnerships and sustainable agriculture are not just destinations that you reach and then you are done. It is a journey of continuous improvement.”
Interview with Unilever’s Andrea Granier
How has consumer demand changed during the last years and what does that mean for companies, like Unilever, and other partners in the food chain?
Consumers still demand products that are of a high quality and are convenient; however, there are other aspects too, such as transparency. For example, the origin of a product or the way agriculture materials are grown that require us to develop a vision based on sustainability. At Unilever, our Procurement team has the mandate to promote sustainable development, and in particular, sustainable sourcing and sustainable agriculture.
How do you ensure quality in your product portfolio?
We have several ways to ensure quality and have systems in place throughout our supply chain. For example, we have over 200 factories globally, which source agricultural ingredients. Unilever has committed to sourcing all agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020. This requires full visibility of our supply chain and requires our suppliers to meet the robust criteria in our Sustainable Agriculture Code. Our suppliers must also adhere to our human and labor rights policy, the Unilever Supplier Qualification System.
Can you name challenges you face when dealing with fresh products like fruit or vegetables?
Traceability is a key challenge as supply chains can be complex and involve numerous parties. Another challenge is to streamline our supply chain as much as possible in order to liaise directly with farmers, as this is the prerequisite to deploy our sustainable sourcing strategy. There are other challenges specific to each crop and location, for example, the use of water in water-scarce countries or effective pest management in difficult climates.
Could you summarize the success of Bayer’s Food Chain Partnership?
This program is beneficial for implementing sustainable agriculture practices at farm level especially when it is difficult, if not impossible, to reach out directly to farmers. Furthermore, having this type of partnership at a wider industry level would help the entire food and drink sector to contribute to accelerate sustainable agriculture implementation and eventually make sustainability a mainstream qualifier.
Having the Food Chain Partnership Program at a wider industry level would make sustainability a mainstream qualifier.