Working with suppliers & farmers to manage water use
Water scarcity impacts farmers across our supply chain. But with the right support, they can cut water use, boost yields and adapt to the changing climate.
Why a changing climate is bad news for farming
Across most of the world, over 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture.1 A lack of water can reduce yields and crop quality, or destroy whole harvests. This can have a devastating impact, especially for smallholder farmers.
Water scarcity is already a major challenge for farmers in many of the countries where we source our crops. Climate change will make this worse, as more sectors and countries feel the impacts of rising temperatures, more frequent droughts and unpredictable changes in rainfall patterns.
Water scarcity and climate change are major risks to our business, because of the potential impact on the supply and cost of the ingredients we use in our products. So we’re taking action to help farmers in our supply chain adapt to the effects of climate change and use water more efficiently to improve crop yields, while also using less water. We focus on water-scarce countries and our most water-intensive crops, such as tomatoes.
Can we use less water & still grow more?
Water management plans jointly implemented with our suppliers and growers
Good water management can increase the quantity and quality of crops while reducing the amount of water used. This is good news for farmers as it protects their business and can boost profits. It also helps preserve vital water resources for local communities and ecosystems.
With our suppliers and growers, we have jointly implemented over 4,000 water management plans through our sustainable sourcing programme. These plans can result in changes across the farm, from the use of drip irrigation to deliver water straight to plant roots preventing wastage to the introduction of best-in-class crop varieties, and better soil and nutrient management. Enhancing soil structure so it can hold more water, and collecting rainwater from rooftops and run-off, can also make a big difference.
We focus on water quality as well as quantity, helping suppliers use pesticides and fertilisers carefully and appropriately. The principles of Climate Smart Agriculture – practices that sustainably increase the productivity and resilience of the agricultural system while reducing greenhouse gas emissions – are integrated into our supplier policies. These policies also detail our commitment to water efficiency and water management in agriculture.
Our agricultural supplier policies are contained in our Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (PDF | 2MB), which embeds the principles of our Responsible Sourcing Policy (PDF | 9MB) (RSP). As the impacts of climate change and water scarcity become ever more visible, our focus on sustainable agriculture is more important than ever.
In updating our Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) in 2017, we increased our focus on Climate Smart Agriculture. We’re now rolling this out to farmers across our supply chain. Our SAC details our approach to water management with our suppliers. And as part of this, we expect all our agricultural suppliers and farmers to explore how they can reduce their water use.
Drip irrigation – less water, more profit
Installing a drip irrigation system is one of the most important steps a farmer can take to reduce water use. It’s particularly beneficial for water-hungry plants such as tomatoes, and those grown in hot, dry environments or areas of water scarcity. Drip irrigation systems use tubes to deliver a slow-moving water supply directly to the soil and plant roots, where it’s needed. This way, much less water is wasted due to run-off or evaporation.
Did you know?
Drip irrigation cuts water use by as much as 50% compared to overhead or furrow irrigation.
The benefits of drip irrigation don’t stop there. By creating optimal growing conditions, these systems can boost yields. Because the soil is not completely soaked, this reduces the spread of fungal and bacterial diseases, as well as weeds. In humid regions, this means the use of fungicide can be cut by up to 50%, lowering costs for farmers and even saving on labour.
The main drawback of drip irrigation is that systems can be costly to install, especially for smallholders. We support farmers in adopting drip irrigation in water-stressed areas where we’re confident that it will be profitable for them. Our most recent drip irrigation projects include supporting broccoli and onion growers in China and supporting smallholder farmers growing tomatoes in Chile.
Through our Knorr Partnership Fund (KPF), we contribute to a number of sustainability projects. This includes providing technical support – and in some cases funding – to help farmers convert to drip irrigation. We work closely with equipment suppliers to help farmers learn new techniques. Since 2010, the KPF has supported €2 million worth of water management projects.
Boosting yields, drip by drip
Drip irrigation is helping farmers in our supply chains to save water while increasing their crop yields.
Since 2016, for example, we have been helping one of our gherkin suppliers in Southern India, Marcatus QED, to implement its Responsible Farming Programme, which supports over 10,000 smallholder gherkin farmers. With our assistance, Marcatus QED has helped around 3,700 families implement ‘low-tech’ drip irrigation systems. These increase yields by 20% and reduce water use by 25%. Through the programme, around 4,500 smallholder farming families have also been trained in improving soil health, through composting and other techniques.
We’re working with Sahyadri Farms in India, where we are both sourcing tomatoes and manufacturing tomato paste and ketchup through Farmer Producer Organisations – that is, a legal entity formed by primary producers such as farmers. The farmers now use drip irrigation systems and mulch across their collective 4,000 acres. We’re also working with processor Varun Agro, in Maharashtra state, to enable smallholder farmers to grow tomatoes for our Kissan ketchup. Combined with Sahyadri Farms, we’re working with around 4,700 smallholder farmers.
And in the Xinjiang region of China, we're working with Knorr supplier BCFoods on a project to replace flood irrigation with drip irrigation to grow onions for Knorr using 30% less water. An automatic drip irrigation system was installed in 2019. Farmers in the scheme are receiving training and support to help them save water, reduce fertiliser use, and increase their yields using a dedicated mobile app, weather stations, and sensors. So far, water use has decreased by 2,070 m3/ha since the drip irrigation system was installed in April 2019.
Less water, sweeter tomatoes
Tomato farmers in the Mediterranean are experiencing unpredictable rainfall and water scarcity. Yet simple tools can make a big difference. Through the Knorr Partnership Fund (KPF), we’ve helped our tomato farmers in the Gastouni region of Greece to cut water use by 28%, while increasing yields and producing sweeter tomatoes.
The key to this change is a tensiometer – a small probe that measures the amount of water present in soil. A dial at surface level gives an at-a-glance guide to the conditions below ground. Previously farmers had to decide when to irrigate based on experience and estimates. Now they can see in an instant when their tomato fields need irrigation, informed by reliable real-time data. The KPF has been co-funding the cost of the tensiometers and providing training to help farmers make the most of the new tool.
With several tensiometers carefully placed across their land, the farmers who cultivate tomatoes for our Knorr sauces, soups and stocks can see immediately when their fields need irrigation, and water them as needed.
The results are clear to see. Between 2010 and 2017, water consumption went down from 86 to 56 litres per kilogramme of tomatoes. And yields have gone up from 76 to 83 tonnes per hectare. What’s more, with optimal irrigation, the tomatoes have a chance to ripen in just the right way. That’s reflected by an increase in their brix level – the official measure of tomato sweetness. A great result for the environment, our farmers and our Knorr consumers.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Helping rice farmers in Arkansas save water and improve yields
Our Knorr brand buys large volumes of rice in the US each year. Arkansas is the biggest state producing rice in the US, but farming is depleting the groundwater at an unsustainable rate. Rice uses 35% of the irrigation water in Arkansas, so it’s a big part of the problem. Without action now to tackle the issue, farmers could run into problems as early as 2040.
Our Knorr teams met with rice farmers to understand potential solutions. They found that farmers were using a wide variety of techniques to grow rice, so there was no one-size-fits-all solution. Farmers were keen to test several techniques that have a proven ability to save water, such as alternate wetting and drying, new breeds of rice, levelling the land, row cropping and polypipe irrigation systems.
Knorr is co-funding a package of different solutions with our supplier Riviana for 11 farmers, covering up to 600 acres (around 243 ha) of land over three years. Farmers will trial a number of techniques for saving water and share best practices. And the University of Arkansas will be providing technical assistance to help measure results.
Skies aren't the limit for water-smart tomatoes
Sometimes you have to look at things from a new angle in order to make the best use of water – which is why one of our tomato suppliers in Spain is recruiting drone and satellite technology to help improve irrigation and yields.
Through our supplier Agraz, which supplies tomatoes for Knorr, in 2019 four farmers used a combination of soil, drone and satellite measurement in a trial project. By implementing other water saving techniques such as drip irrigation, Agraz had already improved their water use, but they wanted to cut their water use even further. After conducting some tests in 2018, in 2019 Agraz expanded their techniques to cover 197 hectares.
Their aim was to map their farms with greater precision than ever before, gathering a detailed analysis of factors including moisture level, vegetation, plant temperature, soil texture and pH levels. Armed with precise mapping of conditions in the fields, Agraz’s farmers and irrigation managers could adjust the irrigation in different parts of the fields. During crop cultivation, a satellite was used every five days and a drone on days 50-70 and 90.
The results have been rapid. Agraz discovered that crop quality improved as their knowledge likewise improved through field mapping. Agraz found they were able to detect potential incidents such as the irrigation pipe leaks and drainage issues, before they had serious consequences. On average the plots that used the new techniques reduced water use by around 22% water compared to the average of nearby plots – while also seeing higher yields.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Thinking big on wastewater
In Belgium, Ardo, one of our Knorr suppliers, is recycling the annual 600,000 m3 of vegetable wastewater from their factory to irrigate their farmers’ field crops.
Funded by the EU, the local province of West-Vlaanderen, Ardo, the Knorr Partnership Fund (KPF) and a co-operative of local farmers, construction of a €2.6 million reservoir and piping system began in 2017. This is providing 47 vegetable growers with access to the recycled vegetable wastewater for crop irrigation and is being scaled up to give more farmers access. The project is also supporting farmers in using irrigation water more efficiently.
Beyond the farm – a ‘whole system’ perspective
We can’t solve the problem of water scarcity in agriculture through changes at farm level alone. We need to take a ‘whole system’ perspective that looks at the wider impact of agricultural and industrial practices on water supply and quality to help address some of the underlying causes of water scarcity.
We’re looking at the effects of deforestation on tea production. Forests are critical in making sure rainfall patterns remain stable, and that water catchment areas are protected. This is essential for tea bushes, which require regular rainfall to produce their best leaves. Our Unilever Tea Tanzania (UTT) and Unilever Tea Kenya’s (UTK) Biodiversity Action Plan places a high priority on planting and maintaining trees. To date over 1.45 million trees have been planted across the UTT and UTK estates, and 30,000 indigenous trees have been donated to local communities and institutions to help improve biodiversity and conserve water resources.
We’re also involved in a project to protect the South West Mau forest in Kenya. Deforestation in this area is contributing to water shortages and drought, impacting Kenyan tea production. To combat this, we’re involved in the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative’s ‘Sustainable Landscapes Initiative’ to stop and reverse deforestation. To date, 250 hectares of forest have been rehabilitated. As part of this, work is underway to provide local cattle herds with alternative fodder to reduce the pressure on the forest.
We have also committed financial and technical resources towards rehabilitating two water springs within the area: Susumwet and Kipyieta. The springs have been drying up, increasing the risk of conflict among different stakeholders in the area. We have already restored the riverbank areas by planting indigenous trees, fencing off the spring area and providing watering points for the animals.
Transforming water management in India: more crop per drop
Over 80% of India’s water resources are used for agriculture. Yet many farmers face acute water shortages and low productivity. So back in 2010, our business in India established the Hindustan Unilever Foundation (HUF). This not-for-profit company supports community-based water management sustainability programmes under the ‘Water for Public Good’ mandate.
HUF empowers local community institutions to govern water resources and enhance agricultural livelihoods. It does this through the adoption of responsible water practices that deliver more crop per drop of water. HUF’s programmes are aligned with India’s national priorities on water. These include recharging groundwater through aquifer management, promoting responsible use of water in agriculture and participatory water management. HUF also works to improve resilience to the availability of water in company supply chains.
HUF’s current programmes operate in 2,400 villages across 53 districts in India, in partnership with 19 NGOs and multiple co-funders. These include government development agencies, financial institutions and other corporates. HUF has embraced the strength of partnerships and aspires to create positive systemic change.
HUF also supports several knowledge initiatives in water conservation and governance, including:
- The performance and impact of micro-harvesting structures such as irrigation tanks and check dams
- Technology tools to enhance assessments of groundwater and implications for effective water management
- Community-based governance models for water management in rural India
- Evidence-based cases for the adoption of innovations in agricultural practices.
In 2019, Ernst & Young independently assured the performance of the projects undertaken by HUF and its partners in the Water for Public Good programme. By the end of 2019, the cumulative and collective achievements of HUF’s programmes included:
- Water conservation: more than 980 billion litres of water conserved through improved supply and demand water management.
- Crop yield: over 960,000 tonnes of additional agricultural production generated.
- Livelihoods: more than 10 million employment days created through water conservation and increased agriculture production.