Sustainable Agriculture

Engaging growers in soil health is key

The Broader Context


Over the last few decades, agriculture has been asked to safeguard food security for a rapidly growing population: from 2.5 billion in 1950, towards 7 billion in 2011 and 7.7 billion by October 2018. This pressure to produce more has led to an intensive agricultural system that relies on external inputs, such as water, fertilisers and plant protection products (PPPs).

These inputs are increasingly scrutinised to understand their impact on both the environment and human health. At the same time, it is clear that intensive agriculture practices can diminish soil fertility and soil health. 

With the world’s population set to top 10 billion by 2055, and forecasted reductions in the availability of inputs, the agricultural sector needs to find ways to produce more with less, utilising the latest scientific developments and innovative technologies.

For LW/M, these challenges are vital to our future. The global market for fries is growing rapidly, at around 5% per year. With only two main sourcing areas currently providing the potatoes to make nearly all of the world’s fries – northwest Europe and northwest USA and Canada – there is pressure to increase the volume of potatoes grown in these areas.

Together with our growers, we feel the pressure in our sourcing areas to produce more on the same land, with less inputs. It is crucial to keep the ecosystem in balance, not just for today, but also for the generations to come.

To guarantee the long-term supply of good quality potatoes, we need to further step up our actions, co-develop more sustainable farming systems and techniques, and support our growers to implement these changes. This is directly connected to our ambition to be acknowledged as the industry leader in sustainable development, which requires us to address the impact we have on the agriculture system.

This is why in 2017 we developed a Sustainable Agriculture Plan. We started collaborating more intensely with our growers to produce a larger potato crop with a lower environmental impact per tonne of finished product. Our aim is to grow more with less, in a sustainable way.

Objective

Our objective is to grow more with less, in a sustainable way.  And to secure the long-term supply of high quality processing potatoes from our main growing areas, while helping to provide safe, affordable and nutritious food. We will achieve this by enabling and supporting growers to improve soil health, the key mechanism to increase yields with a lower environmental impact per tonne of potato products produced.

This will underscore our leadership on sustainable development, and contributes to our brand value and company reputation. Sustainable agriculture is key if we are to feed the world using finite natural resources, while ensuring farmers can operate financially sustainable businesses, both today and for future generations.

In order to achieve our long-term objective, we have to be able to reach and connect to our growers in our sourcing regions.

Our 2020 objective is to roll out the Sustainable Agriculture Plan to all LW/M growers in all our sourcing regions, getting them engaged, making it practical, understandable and measurable.

2018 Performance versus baseline

  • Sustainable Agriculture (SA) Plan defined, roll-out in the Netherlands completed
  • 66% FSA Silver, 27% FSA Bronze, 7% not yet benchmarked on the SAI FSA Standard
  • Concept SA soil label and internal SA dashboard developed
  • SA dashboard - baseline established based on input from 20 growers

Key Results 2017 – 2018

In 2011, we selected the Sustainable Six based on two criteria: their relevance to our company and the industry and whether we could truly make an impact by creating more sustainable operations. Since publishing our last sustainability report, in January 2017, we have revisited sustainable agriculture and chosen to elevate it from a guiding principle to a main focus area. The Sustainable Six has now become the Sustainable Seven.

In 2018, we successfully started to roll out our Sustainable Agriculture (SA) Plan in the Netherlands.

What is sustainable agriculture?

We chose to adopt the definition for sustainable agriculture from the SAI Platform: The efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species (Source: SAI Platform).

Over 50 international, highly diverse companies from across the food industry, food service sector and retail are represented within SAI. Consequently, this definition is broadly accepted in Europe and even globally by some of our key customers. We embrace SAI Platform’s Farm Sustainability Assessment (SAI FSA) as the internationally recognised, credible standard for benchmarking our wide range of existing, national grower certification programs.

The key results are:

  • Eight enthusiastic Dutch growers (out of a total of 200 in the Netherlands) participate in the SA Plan as front runners, and are actively working on sustainable strategies, field practices and growing techniques.
  • Tools were developed to monitor KPIs on the five pillars (see below) to be able to compare growers’ individual performance and trigger improvement. The first results are shared with our eight front runner growers.
  • Our vision, the SA Plan and sustainable growing practices, have been shared with:
    • Our growers in regional field meetings and via LW/M newsletters
    • Our customers, policy makers, the arable crop sector, our competitors and other stakeholders during business meetings, symposia and public events.

Why is sustainable agriculture important to us?
In northwest Europe we see an intensification in growing potato crops (tighter rotations) in mainly the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany, where we source the majority of our potatoes. Long term, this could lead to soil health degradation, increased disease pressure and decreasing yields.

Such a trend would lead to a situation in which we have efficient, high technology factories producing fries, but we do not have enough potatoes fit for use in those factories. Securing the supply of potatoes is therefore key.

Sustainable agriculture also has numerous benefits in other areas. Agriculture is the main impactor on some of our key sustainability parameters: water footprint, carbon footprint, and ecological footprint.

For example, growing potatoes and oil crops accounts for 54% of our total carbon footprint (FY18); and potato growing makes up 43% of the blue water footprint of our products¹. Working on sustainable agriculture means working on these critical topics to reduce our environmental impact.

 


Two other topics that are relevant in sustainable agriculture are the use of plant protection products (PPPs) and biodiversity. The use of PPPs is increasingly under debate due to their potential negative impact on the environment (soil and water quality, biodiversity) and human health (of workers and consumers). This is leading to societies becoming ever-more cautious about their use.

As a result, PPPs are increasingly scrutinised by EU regulators and parliament, and dossiers are reassessed on safety by EFSA, impacting the re-authorisation of active substances. The reduction in availability of important PPPs to protect plant health is a true challenge for growers who need to balance yield and crop quality with sustainability requirements. However, a more selective and sensible use of PPPs, and highly developed, accurate application technology, also contribute to a good soil health.

The same counts for biodiversity, which encompasses wildlife and soil life. Biodiversity in general is decreasing, and therefore increasingly under debate in the public domain. However, the grower needs good biodiversity (for example in the soil) to maintain good soil structure and healthy soil to grow healthy crops.

How does the Sustainable Agriculture (SA) Plan work?

Working together with our growers and with the Centre of Agriculture and Environment (CLM) in the Netherlands, we reviewed sustainable arable farming and selected the most relevant SA topics with respect to our business and growing areas.

[1]Water Footprint study LW/M, Royal Haskoning-DHV, 2013.

LW/M take their leadership responsibility seriously, and I think they are making strong progress. They understand that a large part of their footprint is in agriculture. And they realise they can’t produce sustainable potato products without looking at this footprint critically. Their sustainable agriculture project is both about securing long-term supply, and doing the right thing for their business and the environment. We worked with them to select the main issues they will focus on: soil health, crop protection, biodiversity, water use, and climate change. It was a smart move to put soil health at the centre, since that is crucial for the farmer and the environment. They not only selected the right topics, they chose tools that are practical and will help the farmers understand why we are doing what we are doing.’

Gijs Kuneman
Director CLM
Centre for Agriculture & Environment
Culemborg, the Netherlands

‘The Sustainable Agriculture program is very important to me. I recognise that it can help improve soil quality, reduce our water use on the farm, and lead to better yields. Although I’ve just started with the program, one of my hopes is that it will help us pass on a healthy, sustainable business to the next generation, so that we can keep producing high-quality potatoes for decades to come.’

Jos van Sambeeck
Potato grower
Eersel, the Netherlands

‘The main aim of the sustainable agriculture program is to ensure we have access to good quality potatoes, in sufficient numbers, in the coming years and decades. If we continue to farm at the levels we have done up until now, yields will drop because of a decrease in soil quality. To achieve this, we are trying to stimulate our growers to take better care of the health of their soil, for example by stimulating wider crop rotation and implementing new and innovative techniques. To make the program successful, we know our suggestions need to be practical, reliable and affordable, and that the growers are able to see the benefits on their own farms. Our goal is to have around 30% to 40% of our growers involved in the program and generating positive results in the coming 3-5 years.’  

Geert-Jan van Roessel
Agronomist
LW/M Potato Centre of Expertise
Kruiningen, the Netherlands

Soil health: at the heart of our SA Plan

Soil is the most important and scarce natural resource that our growers use to produce their crops, and is crucial to us achieving our primary goal. Other relevant topics that are linked to soil health include water, greenhouse gas emissions, plant protection products and biodiversity.

We believe a key requirement is good economics, and this is the driver for sustainable development.

Our focus is on looking for strategies and practices that are practical, reliable and affordable. In addition, we strongly believe that growers who do embrace sustainable practices and technologies are more resilient to adverse conditions, including (extreme) weather, pests, and economic downturns.

In 2017, we selected eight growers from three regions in the Netherlands to participate in the program. This involves looking at their basic strategies, crop rotations, and so on. They also carry out a series of trials and use new techniques to develop methods that support sustainable agriculture and share these methods and experiences with our other growers.

We monitor progress made on sustainability in two ways: quantitatively and qualitatively.

Quantitative Monitoring

We are monitoring these growers on five topics with clearly defined KPIs to gain more insight into them. These also enable us to compare growers with peers in their region, trigger and stimulate them to improve on all five topics. 

These five topics, KPIs and tools are:

1. Soil health: As there are no general tools to assess soil health, we decided to expand an existing Soil Label, co-developed by ASR-Bank, CLM (Centre of Agriculture and Environment) and others, being a promising tool to assess soil health. We track soil health using key measures to score growers, and then award them a soil label from A to D. These measures include whether or not they plant rest crops, their crop rotation cycle, positive organic matter balance, and other criteria. We aim to increase the average soil label score of growers year on year.

2. GHG emissions: We are measuring growers’ carbon footprint by tracking their GHG emissions using the Cool Farm Tool, an internationally developed and accepted tool. We gain insights into the main impactors, and growers can see their score compared to others. Good soil health leads to a greater availability of nutrients within the soil, resulting in better yields with the same inputs and, as a result, reducing our carbon footprint.

3. Water: We are monitoring water use by tracking growers’ potato irrigation. Healthy soils support the natural water holding capacity, providing the plant with better water access, leading to greater crop yields and a more consistent quality. Using more water-efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, directly impacts this KPI, as they enable farmers to grow more crop per drop.

4. Plant Protection products (PPPs): We are measuring the use of PPPs in quantity (amount of active ingredients used), as well as their environmental impact, the latter with the CLM Pesticide Yardstick. This enables us to visualise the impact of certain PPPs, compare growers, and give the grower additional information to make a sound decision on what is the best PPP to use to treat a specific disease. Good soil health reduces the vulnerability of plants and the soil to diseases, so it is in the growers interest to use the PPP with the lowest environmental impact points (EIP).

5. Biodiversity: We are looking at the percentage of growers taking specific measures to increase biodiversity. Growers are free to choose those biodiversity measures that best fit their interest and specific location. Healthy soil contains abundant soil life and supports resilient farm biodiversity.

Sharing knowledge and experience
To involve all our growers, we share the knowledge and experience that is developed in several ways:

  • We organise grower field meetings per region, where we share and discuss relevant topics in the potato fields with farmers and content matter experts
  • We address sustainable agriculture in every grower newsletter (shared five times per year)

To involve the potato processing industry and arable crops sector, we presented the SA Plan and results in several business meetings, symposia and events. These included customers, policy makers, industry associations, NGOs, journalists and even our competitors, as we believe we need everyone at the table to speed up and advance sustainable agriculture.

Outlook for 2019/2020

We have a number of strategic goals going forward. These are:

  • We aim to roll the program out fully across our growing areas covering the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Germany and Austria.
  • Our goal is to ensure that the monitoring system is working fully, so that we can score and trigger our growers to make progress, while monitoring them on the five topics and connected KPIs.
  • We will work on making the SA Plan relevant for our broad grower base and work towards our ambition of continuous improvement of our growers’ score on the soil label.

Below we provide a summary of our qualitative and quantitative goals to improve crop yield and consistent quality, to secure our long-term potato supply, and to reduce our total environmental impact from all inputs.

Key challenges

A project of this scope is not without its challenges. For LW/M, engaging fully with our growers and making the program valuable to them on all topics can be seen as a true challenge. In our partnership, we recognise that the growers are the real potato-experts, and we can only provide new insights, and offer technical support and practical advice. Based on this information, the grower has to decide to do things differently. The three key challenges are listed below:

1. For growers, the balance between economics – continuing the farm successfully, often over multiple generations – and more sustainable practices is the biggest challenge. All growers know that a narrow crop rotation – in other words, the number of years between growing potatoes in the same field again – is detrimental to soil health and future yields. However, when income from other crops is low, and potatoes are one of the few crops to provide a solid income², the pressure to grow more potatoes might increase to secure short-term income and maintain the farm.

2. Another challenge is the balance between the use of PPPs, consistent potato quality and yield per hectare. When a disease strikes the potato crop, a grower has three choices: to use the most effective PPP; to use PPPs with a reduced environmental impact, which might be less effective; or not use any PPPs. However, when the disease progresses, potato quality and yield will deteriorate and the grower faces losing his total crop and income. As the decision maker, they need to balance the trade-offs.

3. Essentially, Sustainable Agriculture is more than simply introducing good agricultural practices. It is also a process of communication, discussion, looking at the interests of our growers, and how to engage with them to create wins. Our challenge is to take all our growers with us, by inspiring them to discover their intrinsic motivations as to why it is important to participate in advancing sustainable agriculture, and to sustain their farms through to the next generations.

[2] Importance of the potato as a cash crop: see cipotato.org

Qualitative Monitoring

What gets measured gets done. We believe that sharing results, and enabling our growers to compare their results with their local peers, will further stimulate progress. Additionally, it is key to that we use a widely recognised, credible standard for sustainable agriculture, which is internationally accepted by our growers, as well our international (global) customers. To help achieve this, we use the Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA), an instrument developed by the SAI Platform to assess sustainability on individual farms. The FSA covers all aspects of sustainable farming, focusing on farm conditions, farm management and operational procedures.

One of the most powerful aspects of the SAI FSA standard is that it provides a single benchmark for comparing existing national farming standards and schemes. This means growers can work against their current local standard, and do not have to be inspected multiple times. The FSA scores sustainable agriculture on four performance levels: Gold, Silver, Bronze, and ‘below Bronze’.

Our score in crop year 2017 (from which potatoes are used in processing during FY 2018) was:

*Based on the SAI FSA Benchmark, published May 9, 2017