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Regenerative agriculture: the solution to poor water quality?

Article-Regenerative agriculture: the solution to poor water quality?

Investigating the opportunities and challenges in regenerative agriculture as an answer to polluted water in the nutraceutical supply chain.

As an ingredient, a key part of the manufacturing process and an essential component for crop growth, water is crucial to the nutraceutical industry. Nonetheless, increasing pollution threatens the quality of water, both for consumption and for use in the supply chain. To mark World Water Day (22 March), Vitafoods Insights spoke to OmniActive Health Technologies, rePlant Capital and Regenerate Asset Management about the importance of water to the nutraceutical supply chain, and the way in which regenerative agriculture in particular can provide a sustainable solution to poor water quality and pollution.

The importance of water to the nutraceutical industry

As in many industries, water is a key ingredient in the nutraceutical sector. Used in the manufacturing of nutritional ingredients, and essential in the food and agricultural supply chain, water is so prevalent in the industry that its importance is often overlooked. Robyn O’Brien, co-founder of rePlant Capital, a financial services firm that deploys capital to build more resilient environmental outcomes and improve farmer profitability, highlights the subsequent importance of high-quality water, governed by agencies such as the FDA. “As a raw material in these products, water must be free of toxins, pollutants and microbes,” explains O’Brien. “This requires a purification process given the contaminants, toxins and pollutants found in the water supply.” Reverse osmosis and distillation are two of the most commonly used purification processes.

Water quality and the problem of pollution

While water health is vital to the nutraceutical industry, O’Brien notes that accessing high quality water is increasingly challenging. “Polluted water in the ground actually washes the essential nutrients plants need out of the soil, making the nutraceutical industry’s work harder,” she says. “This water pollution makes the soil acidic and affects the solubility of nutrient ions like magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium.”

Rushva Parihar, sustainability consultant at ingredient supplier OmniActive Health Technologies, spotlights the problem of water pollution in India by highlighting a study by NITI Aayog, showing that about 70% of surface water resource in India are polluted. “The major contributing factors for water pollution are wastewater from different sources, intensive agriculture, industrial production, infrastructure development, untreated urban runoff and wastewater,” says Parihar. “Every day, almost 40 million litres of wastewater enter rivers and other water bodies with only a tiny fraction adequately treated.” Moreover, a recent World Bank report suggests that such a release of pollution upstream lowers economic growth in downstream areas.

Another study estimates that being downstream of polluted stretches in India is associated with a 9% reduction in agricultural revenues and a 16% drop in downstream agricultural yields. Indeed, on field and in supply chains, poor quality water can impact crop growth and even kill the plant. According to O’Brien, “high soluble salts can injure roots, interfering with water and nutrient uptake. Salts can accumulate in plant leaf margins, causing burning of the edges. Water with high alkalinity can adversely affect the pH of the growing medium, interfering with nutrient uptake and causing nutrient deficiencies which compromise plant health.”

Enter regenerative agriculture

It is therefore vital that nutraceutical businesses work to ensure sustainable, efficient and effective farming practises in order to support water health.

Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming centred on conversation and rehabilitation which supports farming systems such as topsoil generation, biodiversity, biosequestration, and, most crucially, improvement of the water cycle. Ben Stafford, chief executive of regenerative investment firm Regenerate Asset Management, sees regenerative agriculture as a sustainable solution to issues of poor water quality. “Within the nutraceutical industry, the nutritional content of the source ingredients is critical,” Stafford points out. “This can be improved through sourcing higher nutrient dense foods farmed through regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture has key benefits on water management within farms, such as better water retention in the soils and a lower necessity for chemical inputs which can leach into water supplies. Through sourcing high nutrient dense foods from regenerative farms, the nutraceutical industry can support better water management and reduced pollution.”

O’Brien agrees that regenerative agriculture is proving a powerful tool and system for water conservation and water infiltration. According to O’Brien, “industrial agriculture and the agrochemical model produces runoff—pollution that washes off farm fields after rain events and into our water supply, from oceans to rivers.” Crucially, that runoff carries synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, and eroded soil threatening not only the quality of nutraceuticals but also food supply and drinking water. “Not only does the practice of cover cropping, used in regenerative agriculture, enable water infiltration and water conservation on farm, but it also reduces the need for chemical inputs,” she comments. “Transitioning farmland to regenerative, organic agriculture directly impacts water quality on farm and farm offtake. Across the supply chain, regenerative, organic agriculture benefits the nutraceutical industry, yielding nutrient dense ingredients for products and reducing the excessive demands for purification.”

While Parihar agrees that as an industry we must seriously look at how we can save water in our farms through sustainable agricultural practises, he notes that there are nonetheless challenges with establishing a regenerative approach to farming. “The ability to improve water management in agriculture is typically constrained by inadequate policies, major institutional under-performance, and financing limitations,” he points out. “There have been improvements with innovations on how water can be saved during the agricultural process, including like drip irrigation, aquaponics and hydroponics. However, these processes are expensive, and the small holding farmer is often unaware of these processes.” Therefore, whilst regenerative agriculture appears an effective solution to the problem of water quality, Parihar believes that, if we are to improve the quality of water for all, the nutraceutical industry must incentivise our farmers to adopt these techniques and invest in regenerative agricultural technologies and education.