Woolies pushes sustainable farming

10 August 2011

A recent audit by Woolworths on its 15 largest fruit and vegetable growers, who supply some 37% of the retailer’s fresh produce on a total area of about 45 000 hectares, show that its Farming for the Future initiative is starting to bear fruit.

The initiative, which has the support of the World Wildlife Fund South Africa, helps farmers grow quality produce while protecting the environment, preserving natural resources and reducing dependence on chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides – all without adding anything to the price the consumer pays at the store.

All Woolworths produce farmers – other than those who exclusively grow organic produce – have adopted Farming for the Future practices and will be audited on a regular basis.

Ensuring healthy soil

The key to the success of Farming for the Future is soil health – healthy soil requires less irrigation because it is better able to retain water, and soil erosion and loss of top soil are reduced. Healthy soil also requires fewer chemical interventions, so there is less chemical run-off into water systems, which helps maintain water quality.

“Using fewer chemicals and pesticides also contributes to maintaining and encouraging biodiversity,” Woolworths said in a statement last month.

The recent audit revealed some remarkable achievements, such as an average 20% reduction in the use of synthetic fertilisers and an average increase of 34% in compost use.

Over the years, South Africa’s farmers have relied on synthetic fertilisers to boost production. However, synthetic fertilisers only feed the plants, unlike compost, which builds soil structure and increases soil microbial activity.

One of the most impressive results is a 3% increase in soil carbon. That may not sound like much, but Woolworths Technologist Kobus Pienaar, explains that South African soils are historically low in carbon: “In fact, the amount of carbon in our soils has been steadily declining over the years. The 3% increase in soil carbon is actually quite substantial.”

Positive spin-offs

Agriculture is by far the biggest user of water in South Africa, and the initiative has helped save some 720-million cubic metres of water over the past three years, or about double the capacity of the Grootdraai Dam, which forms a part of the Vaal River system.

“Although we have had optimal rains, some of this reduction – which represents a 16% drop in water usage – is a result of optimising irrigation and upgrading old systems,” said Pienaar.

While Woolworths’ farmers have for many years minimised their use of pesticides and herbicides, the adoption of Farming for the Future’s sustainable pest management techniques, such as integrated pest management, has resulted in a substantial initial decrease of up to 50% in pesticide and herbicide usage.

There have been other positive spin-offs from the implementation of Farming for the Future as well: with farmers focusing on reducing waste, they’ve found innovative ways of recycling, resulting in a 32% increase in recycling and a 13% decrease in solid waste material going to landfills.

A further benefit has been an 18% reduction in fossil fuel use.

Adopting a different approach

In less than two years since the retailer launched the Farming for the Future initiative, it has already become one of the major focuses of their sustainability programme, the Good Business journey, which played a key role in Woolworths winning the International Responsible Retailer of the Year award last year – the second time in three years it has won it.

“Food security remains a challenge, not only for South Africa, but for Africa as a whole,” said Woolworths MD of foods, Zyda Rylands. “If we accept that the conventional approach to farming is not sustainable, then we need to adopt a different approach, one that produces quality food and also protects the environment, preserves natural resources, and provides a livelihood for the agricultural community.

“We believe that Farming for the Future is that kind of farming.”

Based on the success that Farming for the Future has had with produce, Woolworths is now rolling out the initiative to its wine growers and horticulture suppliers.

SAinfo reporter

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