Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dripping Sustainability

I was pleased to read a great article by the fabulous sustainability writer @LeonKaye on the Guardian Sustainable Business Water Hub about how water stewardship provides a return on investment and that The Campbell's Soup Company has gained competitive advantage from investing millions in water management projects. You can read the article here.

This is the sentence that caught my eye :

"The company urges the growers of its top five agricultural ingredients – tomatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and jalapeno peppers – to adopt more efficient practices such as drip irrigation and the construction of retention basins to curtail rain runoff."

You may not realize it, but this sentence demonstrates an exemplary approach in supply chain management by a food manufacturer who is zooming in right to the basic building blocks of the company's value chain to encourage more sustainable practices at ground level. In this case, driving a change in agricultural practice to include drip irrigation represents a major shift in the way such crops are grown and yields major environmental benefits and productivity gains. This leads to greater and more efficient food supply, far beyond the direct benefits to Campbell's Soup. Drip irrigation is currently used only in about 4 - 5 per cent of world irrigated fields. Moving the agri-sector to drip is truly a step towards advancing sustainable food production for a 9 billion world.

Quick course in drip irrigation.

What is it: Drip irrigation is an irrigation method which saves water, fertilizer and nutrients by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either above ground or sub-surface, through a network of valves, pipes, tubing (driplines), and drippers.

Why it saves water: Most agricultural irrigation is done using furrow or flood irrigation. Essentially this means that water is pumped or transported to the fields and is allowed to flow along the ground among the crops. Flood irrigation is inefficient as too much water gets to certain parts of the field and not enough to others. In fact, about half the water doesn’t actually reach the crops. The drip irrigation method channels water directly to the crop, and using specialist technology, ensures that the crops get exactly the right amount of water, no less, no more, and at the exact time they need it.

Amount of water saved:  Depending on the method, drip irrigation can be up to 100% more water efficient, though a general average would be 50 – 70% water saving versus traditional methods.

Why it saves fertilizers and chemicals: Chemigation and nutrigation work on the same principles. By drip-dosing fertilizers and nutrients to crops, none is wasted, doses are accurate and far smaller quantities are used. As much as 50% of chemicals can be saved using this method.

It is probably not necessary for me to explain why all this is so important, but I will.

Drip irrigation is a truly sustainable method for agriculture which minimizes water consumption, minimizes energy use through efficient operations, minimizes use of chemicals, delivers improves yield quality with low crop waste levels and in general offers many farmers a cost-effective solution to develop a viable agri-business, thereby enhancing local community development and quality of life. In developed markets, this can be of major assistance in reducing the burden of resources required by the demands of our consumer society. In emerging markets, it can mean the difference between poverty and a respectable livelihood for many local farming communities.

It probably is necessary for me to tell you why I am so interested in this, so I will.

Netafim Ltd. is a client of my company, Beyond Business Ltd. Netafim has been a world leader in drip irrigation technology and application since its founding in 1965 , delivering drip solutions to thousands of farmers in over 100 countries. The more I learn about drip irrigation and the different technologies involved, the more I find it fascinating. I won't go into too much detail here (you will have to wait for Netafim's first Sustainability Report to be published in 2012 :)), but a one example to give you the general idea:

Netafim has developed a Family Drip System, which is perfect for the small farmer for use in plots of up to 2000 sq. meters. It works on gravity with no pump or other energy requirements in open field or greenhouse crops. Being a relatively simple system, it is low cost making it accessible to most small farmers. This system is now used widely in Africa and other emerging markets.

Take a look at this short clip about how this system has transformed the lives of a settlement in Kamale, Kenya. The livelihood of everyone living in Kamale depends on farming. Prior to using an irrigation system, the women of the settlement would wake at 5 am to fetch water from far-away sources. One women tells how she was not able to breastfeed her child because she spent so many hours per day just fetching water. Incredible!.  

So the question remains, when the world is crying out for water efficiency and when the food security of future generations is already under threat, why is this seemingly perfect solution used only for 4-5 % of global irrigated fields? Why is this not an absolutely no-brainer? In Israel, Netafim's home base, over 75% of crops are grown using drip irrigation. In the past 30 years, agricultural output in Israel has increased fivefold without any increase in water consumption. "Greening the desert" has been both a necessity and a major achievement, as only 20% of Israel's land is arable. Today, more than 50% of Israel's crop exports come from semi-arid areas such as the Arava desert.

Despite major advances using drip irrigation in recent years, there seems to be two main reasons for the lack of uptake at mainstream level. First is that irrigations systems require an initial investment, which given the often small scale of farms, may be too hefty for family farmers to afford without government assistance or NGO support. Second, so I've heard, is that the farmers are by nature a conservative and tend to use methods which have been taught through generations and unwilling to risk a crop in the hand for two in the bush.

This is why the Campbell's initiative is so important. By making sustainable farming methods a condition of supply, and by partnering with farmers to help them adopt new technology, major sustainability changes can be achieved. This approach offers incentives right throughout the value chain: Campbell's get a more cost-enviro-efficient raw material, farmers get better yields and access to customers and markets, we all get higher-quality, less chemicalized food, and more if it, and Planet Earth lives on to support our descendants.

By the way, as an ice-cream addict, I am thinking of having Netafim make me a special drip-irrigation system to deliver ice cream to my spoon at a constant rate 24/7. Bet they didn’t think of that one! (ahem.. my patent, please).

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via www.twitter.com/elainecohen  on Twitter or via my business website www.b-yond.biz/en  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)


Cathie Guthrie said...

Elaine, this is a superb article as an adjunct to Leone Kaye's article about Campbell's and in its own right about the merits of the drip. I have used drip irrigation on a modest scale (inverted pop bottles filled with water) in my garden for many years. I'm always happy to see how little water is actually consumed and amazed at how much time I save. Thanks for taking it to scale!


elaine said...

thanks Cathie for reading and for your insight. I have been amazed at the tecnhology of drip irrigation. I throught it was just pipes with holes in. Actually, it's pipes with highly technical valves inside to regulate the flow of water to a very precise degree, with a range of different valves for differenet applications.

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