McCain Foods, a leading frozen food provider, has adopted several planet-friendly practices in its businesses. In an exclusive interview, Debadatta Baxi, Regional Director, Communications & Sustainability, Human Resources - India, Korea, South East Asia & Taiwan, shares with Smitha Verma how the company is working with farmers and adopting sustainability as a corporate norm. Edited excerpts from the interview
How are you bringing sustainability into your food packets?
Planet-friendly food is our primary goal, one that guides us to do everything in a sustainable way for the communities where we operate.
And that’s the core which drives us as we go about building our sustainability strategy, which has four pillars and revolves around how we are supporting the communities where they operate. And in India, specifically, our goal is to reduce the impact on the planet by producing delicious food, which is what we are known for, but in the most possible sustainable and responsible manner.
Being a food company, it’s very clear that we want to work collaboratively with our farmers, the communities where we are, we want to contribute to the environment, but also for our consumers.
If I look at our sustainability strategy, there are broadly four pillars to it. The first one being smart and sustainable farming, second being resource-efficient operations, third is good food and the fourth one is thriving communities.
Now over the years we have been actively working towards all of our community development projects, we have been implementing regenerative agriculture practices, we have been reducing pesticide use intensity and we are also training our farmers on technology being used to grow potatoes. Those are some of the things that’s happening more from a smart and sustainable farming point of view.
From a resource efficient point of view we have been fairly committed to try and see how do we reduce our carbon footprint, how do we go about using the alternative energy sources that are available, could be in terms of wind, could be in terms of solar. While trying to also see how we save water. Around 88 percent of the water that we use is actually recycled and then we use that back. We have got a huge water treatment and fuel treatment plant through which we are trying to save as much water as possible.
We have been making huge strides in terms of reducing sodium from many of our products that we sell to our consumers and we also have a very strong plan and purpose to look at some of the healthier oils that we will use to make our products.
Our fourth pillar is the thriving communities. It’s been almost six years since we have kicked off our first project, which is called Project Shakti, which is about women empowerment. We strategically looked at that because of the gender ratio data that we picked up from the Mehsana district, where we have our factory and we have been working with the local communities and authorities to truly create livelihood opportunities for women in close to six villages now.
The other project that we started three years back is Project Uthaan, which focuses on the small and marginal farmers in Northern Gujarat. The idea is how do you create livelihood for all of these small and marginal farmers in the rural part of the country.
Tell us how food companies can adopt sustainable practices?
So the growing and processing of food actually accounts for a quarter of all carbon emissions that happen, that contributes to climate change globally. In fact, the United Nations projects that there will be 9.7 billion people on the planet in 2050, which is up from 7.9 billion that we have today. It is very critical that farming practices change today and if you fail to do that then it will actually result in an 87 percent increase in carbon emissions, which is necessary to feed the world in that time.
At McCain our focus is heavily on maximising the use of innovation, technology in agriculture as well as on reducing climate change, given the increasingly unpredictable climate, one of our attempts has been to transition to sustainable farming and to advance regenerative agriculture to improve biodiversity and soil health.
We should engage in shrewd and sustainable farming to tackle some of the issues like biodiversity loss or degradation of soil, severe weather conditions and that’s where we need innovative methods to increase effectiveness of water use or agriculture resource efficiency and farmer education are some of the best practices that we have been following and we would like to continue with.
Climate change mitigation in order to reduce carbon footprint, how do we go about promoting local purchasing, and making the best use of resources that are available are a couple of things we are looking at.
To enhance water efficiency we have been encouraging our growers to use drip and sprinkler irrigation, rather than flood irrigation by promoting sustainable water practices. To assure food safety, environmental sustainability, biodiversity and soil health, we are doing something called good agricultural practices (GAP). More than one-third of our contractual volume of potatoes are actually cultivated using the GAP programme.
How is McCain working towards palm oil elimination?
Palm oil is recognised to have aided in destruction of forest and we are committed to eliminating its use in our frying operations by 2025 and substituting it with something healthier and more environment-friendly. We have plans which are in place to switch from palm oil to alternative oils but until we find a substitute in our manufacturing process we will make all the efforts to buy all of our palm oil from suppliers that are affiliated with the roundtable on sustainable palm oil.
How are employees at McCain contributing to the sustainable strategy?
Employees do not just want to work for a company which is making profits. How you also contribute to the purpose has also become important. Employee involvement in building the sustainability strategy is the key thing. So we also do a lot of employee volunteering activities where they spend a few hours truly giving it back to the community.