Using water wisely in agriculture

Good water management is crucial for conserving water resources, improving yields and quality consistency.

How is water used in agriculture?

Using water wisely in agriculture

Using data from the Water Footprint Network, in 2012 we completed a ground-breaking assessment of the amount of irrigation water used to produce our key agricultural raw materials. We did this across all the water-scarce countries from where we source. This included a detailed assessment of our key agricultural materials (around two-thirds of our purchased volume) and consideration of a further 30 materials.

Generally, we do not expect the results of this assessment to change much year-on-year as our purchasing patterns have not changed dramatically. The one exception to this is the volume of tomatoes we purchase, which has reduced significantly in the US following the sale of our pasta sauce business in 2014.

Our assessment is much more precise than our previous analysis, which we used to calculate our 2008 water footprint. This is largely due to better water footprint estimates and more specific information on the areas in which our key crops are grown.

Our agricultural footprint is significantly lower than we had previously estimated. We thought that the total water used to produce our agricultural ingredients was about 50% of our value chain footprint. Working with better information, we now estimate that water use in agriculture accounts for roughly 15% of our total water footprint. The assessment identified tomatoes, sugar cane, milk and milk derivatives as priority crops from a water perspective. Although cocoa beans also have a large water footprint owing to the volume of water needed for plant growth, 98% of this comes from rainfall.

  • 15%

    Water used in the agricultural raw materials we source, measured in all water-scarce countries in the world

  • <1%

    Water we add to the product

  • 85%

    Water used by consumers in water-scarce countries, measured in seven water-scarce countries representing around half the world’s population

Good water management improves agriculture

Changes in crop yield because of unpredictable weather is a big problem for farmers and the environment. Crop failures mean that scarce financial resources get used to buy fertiliser that stays in the ground, potentially ending up in sensitive ecosystems. For vulnerable smallholder farmers, crop failures can be a shock from which it is difficult to recover. It means that the following year, the risk of buying fertiliser may be difficult to justify, and this may result in a low yield even in a ‘good’ year for water.

Good water management can increase the quantity and consistency of yields whilst reducing water use. We know that applying irrigation only when crops need it and in the right amounts can boost profits for famers by growing more with less. Enhancing soil structure to increase its holding capacity and collecting water from rooftops and run-off can also make a big difference. In the case of tracking the amount of irrigation water used to produce primary agricultural raw materials, we conduct exercises to understand the issues and apply water management practices through our sustainable sourcing programme.

Our approach

Our approach to managing water use in agriculture is to work with our suppliers and their farmers. We do this by embedding our Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC), along with our technical expertise, into our grower base. We launched the Code in 2010 and updated it in 2015. This sets out standards for water, irrigation management and catchment-level water conservation, the impacts of which will be monitored further in 2016.

Through our work, we have jointly implemented over 4,000 water management plans with our growers, which also lock in continuous improvement activities. As well as reducing water consumption, we aim to reduce overall water use by increasing yields. If farms can increase yields through using best-in-class varieties, or better soil and nutrient management for example, then water use per tonne of product produced will also go down.

We work with farmers in water-scarce areas. For example, 70% of Spanish strawberries come from the Doñana region – a protected wetland with unique biodiversity. Irrigated farms currently abstract around three times more water than the capacity of the aquifer. Our programme aims to establish good relationships with the Spanish authorities to ensure a supportive legislative environment and we work with farmers to help implement best practices that protect the natural water resources.

Our programme is supported by SAI Platform and the Sustainable Food Laboratory, with industry partners such as Coca Cola, Groupe Danone, Ahold, and NGOs such as the Ramsar Convention and WWF.

Ahead of the UN Climate Change conference in Paris in 2015, we extracted from the SAC all requirements relevant to Climate Smart Agriculture, so we could offer our suppliers a stand-alone document. Whilst this is primarily about greenhouse gas emissions, the climate adaptation component covers topics such as, water scarcity, drought, and efficient irrigation techniques.

Back to top