Global food companies ranked on water risk management

The meat industry made the biggest gains in improvement at 20 percent but still lags far behind the packaged food and beverages industries

Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit organisation, has ranked the 42 largest global food and beverage companies–nearly all US-based–on how effectively they are responding to water dependence, water security and operational water use efficiency.

Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: Tracking Food Company Progress Toward a Water-Smart Future, compares the companies to its first report released in 2015. It calls on major food companies to reduce the impacts of a warming climate–on both the global water supply and on their bottom lines–by adopting stronger practices to use limited fresh water resources more efficiently. It says that climate change is one of the biggest risks facing the US$5 trillion food industry.

“Smart water management is a business imperative for food companies, as the impacts of climate change and water scarcity and pollution accelerate around the world,” said Brooke Barton, Senior Director of Water and Food at Ceres, who co-authored the report. “Some corporate leaders are making strong progress, but the majority must do more to water-proof their businesses to protect and sustain our water supplies.”

Companies were divided into four industry categories: packaged food, beverage, agricultural products and meat, and analysed against actions in four categories of water risk management. The top scoring companies, out of a possible score of 100, by industry were: Nestlé (Packaged Food) 82 up from 64 in 2015; Coca-Cola (Beverage) 72 up from 67 in 2015; Smithfield Foods (Meat) 33 no change from 2015; and Olam (Agricultural Products) 49, which was not part of the 2015 analysis.


The report found a 10 percent improvement in the average score of the food sector’s management of water risk since 2015. The packaged food and meat industries made the biggest gains in improvement at 16 and 20 percent, respectively. However, the average score for the 42 companies benchmarked was still only 31 points and despite big gains, the meat and agricultural products industries continue to lag far behind the packaged food and beverage industries.

The analysis notes that the food sector is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts.

“Over 70 percent of the world’s irrigated land faces water shortage either chronically, seasonally, or during dry periods, and that means our food supplies are at risk,” said Kate A Brauman, Lead Scientist, University of Minnesota Global Water Initiative. “Food companies need to step up sustainable management of water resources, including by working collaboratively with their agricultural suppliers.”

The analysis found that, overall, companies need to improve most on governance and board oversight, wastewater management, integrating water risk into procurement processes and collaboration to protect watersheds.

“More than 85 percent of our water footprint is from growing and transporting crops, and turning those crops into food ingredients,” said Jerry Lynch, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at General Mills, a packaged food manufacturer. “This underscores the role we must play to address water stewardship issues in our agricultural supply chain. We continue to identify opportunities to increase efficiency and conservation upstream of our operations, which is where we can have the most impact.”

The report used publicly available data from annual reports, sustainability reports and the CDP Global Water Report.