Case study: Working with the birds and bees

A switch to organic farming led Murcia fruit growers to partner with Coca-Cola’s lemonade brand

For a group of family-owned farms in the sun-drenched lemon groves of Murcia, chemical pesticides and fertilisers are history. Instead, bugs and birds of prey work as natural pest controllers and bees are the bosses of pollination.

The switch to organic has taken time, courage and dedication, with higher costs and lower yields in the short term, but now the growers are bearing the fruits of their labour in a biodiverse environment, surrounded by thriving trees laden with juicy yellow lemons.

The organic food and drink market is worth £2.2bn in the UK alone, with 83% of shoppers having bought organic in the past year, according to the Soil Association report. Spurred by greater consumer demand for less sugary, organic drinks brands such as The Coca-Cola Company’s (TCCC) Honest Lemonade are pushing the sustainable organic agenda into supply chains across Europe. 

“Six or seven years ago, during our first meeting, TCCC kept stressing that sustainability and organic are the future,” says José Antonio García Fernandez, director of Ailimpo, the association of lemon and grapefruit farmers in Murcia. “It really got us thinking. In some ways, we can say that the company opened our minds, and we realised we had to move in that direction with them. Our partnership has really boosted sustainable, organic lemon farming practices in Murcia.”

Driven by farmers

But the decision to transition to organic methods was ultimately made by the farmers, says Alexander Isselhorst, marketing manager, Honest. “They believe that the growth in organic products is leading a new niche market through helping to promote a more sustainable world.”

“We try to source locally,” he adds. “And going forward, we will only source lemons from Spain for Honest products that are commercialised in Europe. This helps us reduce the impact of transportation and support regional farming.” 

Isselhorst explains that Honest’s procurement team “identifies the right supply partners and seeks to build deep partnerships, building shared visions and roadmaps. Together with our bottling partners and suppliers, we are on a journey to ensure all our key ingredients are sourced sustainably by 2020”. 

For TCCC, sustainable sourcing means its farmers and suppliers meet standards for human and workplace rights, environmental protection and responsible farming management, as per its Sustainable Agriculture Guiding Principles (SAGP). After five years of applying these principles, 44% of all its ingredients comply with SAGP or equivalent standards. SAGP, explains Isselhorst, lays out expectations for TCCC’s supply chain, including responsible labour practices. “We therefore select our suppliers carefully and work with them to ensure they meet our high standards. The Honest team has worked closely with the growers to ensure SAGP compliance in addition to organic certification,” he says.

Since 2017, Honest has been working directly with citrus farmers in Spain to help them grow crops not just organically but also sustainably, through the Sustainable Citrus project. This supports farmers to adopt sustainable irrigation and fertilisation processes, which helps cut CO2 emissions and reduce water consumption.

Saving water is of crucial importance in Murcia, one of Europe’s most water-scarce areas. Sustainability practices at the lemon farms include the latest computer-controlled drip-irrigation systems, allowing for precision-farming technology, whereby humidity sensors below the surface provide real-time information about which trees need more water, which runs through a pipe system and drips slowly into the soil at the roots. In addition, growers use specialist drones to monitor soil conditions and determine where more water is needed. They are also experimenting with nanotechnology to help make water easier to absorb, resulting in more water savings.

Indeed, responsible water use is a vital aspect of sustainable sourcing, says Isselhorst. “This most precious natural resource is not only an essential ingredient in our products and critical to our manufacturing processes, but it’s also of crucial importance to grow the agricultural ingredients we rely on.”

Last year, TCCC helped the farmers install 1,300 kilometres of water-efficient irrigation systems. Alongside its sustainable sourcing goals, TCCC also set a target to give 100% of the water it uses in its drinks back to nature and local communities. “In Spain, we returned 3,200 million litres of water to nature in 2018 – that’s over 113% of the water contained in our products in the country,” says Isselhorst.

But the Honest brand will continue to strive for “fairer trade, less sugar, and less waste”, says Isselhorst. “Honest Coffee will be Fairtrade-certified by the end of 2019 and Honest Tea by 2020, while Honest plastic bottles will be made from 100% recycled PET by the end of 2020.” 

World first
Honest was launched in the US nearly 20 years ago from co-founder Seth Goldman’s kitchen. Fifteen thousand bottles of the inaugural product, the world’s first organic bottled tea, were ordered by Fresh Fields (which later became Whole Foods

Market). To date, Honest Tea can be found in more than 100,000 stores across the US and has expanded into the UK. In 2002, it became the best-selling bottled tea brand in the natural foods industry and launched Honeybush Haarlem, made with brewed rooibos, produced in partnership with a cooperative in South Africa.

The Coca-Cola Company made an initial investment of 40% in Honest Tea in 2008, and in 2011 the company acquired Honest, a brand that “strives to create healthy and honest relationships with its customers, suppliers and the environment”.

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