DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Some big food makers are getting serious about making sure farmers grow crops in ways that minimize damage to water, soil and the environment, according to a report released Wednesday that called for more companies to demand sustainable supplies.
Companies including Walmart, Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Unilever have taken steps to work with suppliers on environmental improvements, the report said, but added that measurable goals and firm deadlines are necessary to make real improvements.
The report from Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit network of investors, companies and public interest groups, focused on climate change's effect on corn production. It said farmers and the companies they supply must address drought and other weather extremes, an increase in groundwater depleting irrigation, and more fertilizer use.
"Climate change and pressures on water supplies pose financial risk to our agricultural industry but it's not just the corn belt's problem," said Brooke Barton, co-author of the report. "Companies that depend on U.S. corn have a big role to play in sending market signals that these issues matter," she said.
General Mills, Coca-Cola and Unilever, have all been working with Ceres and have adopted sustainability programs setting specific goals that suppliers and farmers must meet if they want to continue selling ingredients to the corporations.
The report calls on companies to establish goals to reduce their environmental impact, develop procurement contracts that require sustainably grown crops, and make efforts to identify areas of high water stress, groundwater pollution and overuse of fertilizer.
Coca-Cola announced last year it would buy all of its agricultural ingredients from sustainable sources by 2020, including the corn used for its high-fructose corn syrup.
"We know how to make beverages. We don't necessarily know how to grow corn but we do have a good opportunity to influence our suppliers," Jon Radtke, the company's water resources sustainability manager, said after the report was released. "We have shared, obviously, our sustainable ag guidelines principles with suppliers and asked them to meet those and they've developed a plan to implement those over the coming years so we can meet that 100 percent by 2020."
Ceres also recommends that companies substitute other grains for corn where environmental benefits are well-demonstrated.
General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, Wheaties and Green Giant vegetables, began a sustainability program in 2005 and has increasingly been providing money and support to improve the use of water and fertilizer.
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