Food For Thought

I grew up in Indiana, where you don’t have to look too far to spot cornfields as far as the eye can see. But before I became the managing editor of iWWD, I never really gave much thought to corn production, other than reaping the benefits of its yield at county fairs and getting lost in its mazes around Halloween.

These days, however, I’m discovering the true significance of corn and its key connection to sustainable water management practices in food and beverage production. For instance, U.S. corn farmers generated a record harvest of nearly 14 billion bushels of corn in 2013, valued at $65 billion and enough to fill a freight train long enough to circle the Earth, according to Ceres, a non-profit organization advocating for sustainability leadership.

The organization recently released a report, “Water and Climate Risks Facing U.S. Corn Production: How Companies and Investors Can Cultivate Sustainability,” which analyzed the risks facing U.S. corn production—a major one being unsustainable water use. According to the report, 87% of irrigated U.S. corn is grown in regions with high or extremely high water stress. The most vulnerable regions are in Nebraska, Kansas, California, Colorado and Texas. What’s more, corn uses the most fertilizer of any crop; therefore, the nitrogen runoff from cornfields is the single-largest source of nutrient pollution to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.

The report addressed the risk management practices farmers can use to combat these water supply threats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Farm Bill provide incentives for farmers to take advantage of agriculture best  management practices; however, the report pointed out some key barriers to their implementation, such as concerns that resource conservation practices can reduce farmers’ yields, landlord-tenant or lease issues can discourage the installation of conservation systems or practices, and the Federal Crop Insurance Program does not reward farmers for risk-reducing practices.

Leaving the burden of better practices to farmers will not alleviate the water supply threats associated with corn production. As the Ceres report noted, there are various initiatives underway that aim to help major food and beverage companies gain more visibility into their supply chains, thereby allowing them to set higher sustainability standards and support growers in reducing water risks. For example, the Sustainability Consortium, a network of retailers, companies, universities and non-governmental organizations, is developing ways to measure the environmental impacts of consumer products across a product’s life cycle—from raw materials to consumption. 

Along those lines, another interesting recent study from Ceres along with Sustainalytics, a sustainability research and analysis firm, called “Gaining Ground, Corporate Progress on the Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability,” indicated that some major food and beverage companies are working to integrate sustainability into their business strategies. The study concluded, however, that too many companies are “still at the starting gate,” so it’s obvious there is still much to be done to prepare for increasing risks. 

Still, a promising trend that seems to be on the upswing is that more companies in the food and beverage sector are starting to prioritize sustainability in at least some aspects of their business. This is encouraging, and for those of us who are troubled by the seemingly ever-increasing threats to our water supply, we’ll take it.

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