Food Companies Show Concern about Farm Runoff

  • Fearing a potential backlash from customers, companies like Coke, Nestlé and General Mills are beginning to pressure farmers to reduce their contribution to water pollution. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Agriculture

October 23, 2015
by Abby Wendle | Harvest Public Media

In order to grow massive amounts of corn and soybeans—two crops at the center of the U.S. food system—farmers in the Midwest typically apply hundreds of pounds of fertilizer on every acre they farm. This practice allows food companies to produce—and consumers to consume—a lot of relatively cheap food.

But that fertilizer can leach through soil and wash off land, polluting our drinking water, destroying our fishing rivers and turning a Connecticut-sized chunk of the Gulf of Mexico into an oxygen-depleted hypoxic zone that's suffocating aquatic life.

Despite environmental groups, non-profit organizations and the government pressuring farmers in the Midwest to clean up their act, this multi-billion dollar problem has continued to fester for decades. Now some of the world’s wealthiest food companies are concerned about how it could hurt their bottom lines, and they are beginning to join the effort.

“No parent wants to give their kid a glass of milk in the morning that may be linked to these issues,” said Brooke Barton, senior program director for the water program at Ceres. “The biggest risk for these companies is their reputational risk of being associated with toxic algae and hypoxia.”

Ceres helps some of the biggest investment groups understand the environmental risks associated with the companies in which they invest, and has recently turned its attention to the threat of water scarcity caused, in part, by pollution from the agriculture industry.

Fearing a potential backlash from customers, companies like Coke, Nestlé, General Mills and Unilever (maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise) are beginning to pressure farmers to reduce their contribution to water pollution.

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