With a global population set to grow to over 9 billion by 2050, we know that the challenge of food security will become more important than ever. It is estimated that we will need to produce 60% more food to sustain us. And yet at present, over 800 million people do not have enough food to eat and poor nutrition kills over 3 million children under five each year.

The question is: how do we feed the world while also protecting the environment for the long term and supporting the communities that depend on it? There is no way we can succeed in one challenge if we can’t succeed in the other. Our business strategy is founded on the belief that economic growth should work for the benefit of consumers, employees, suppliers and society while also being built sustainably and equitably.

Sustainable agriculture

At Unilever, we aim to source all our agricultural raw materials sustainably. We look at growing food in ways that will sustain the soil, conserve water, minimize fertilizer use, protect biodiversity and enhance farmers’ livelihoods. Easy to say, but not easy to do.

We can’t do this by ourselves. To be successful, we need to transform systems, industries and ecosystems. That’s why initiatives like Grow Asia give us opportunities to develop effective transformational partnership models between businesses, governments and communities in order to secure the region’s food.

Already, through the partnerships established at the 2010 World Economic Forum, we were able to start working with Vietnam’s PPP Tea Group to improve not just the quality of the tea but the livelihoods of people. By adopting what we applied to our own supply chain on other tea manufacturers in Kenya, Tanzania, and China, over 10,000 tonnes of tea produced in Vietnam (of the 30,000 tonnes collected annually) has been certified by the Rainforest Alliance, the mandatory standard for exporting tea. The success of our strong partnership models is a key driver of food security through the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices.

Combat deforestation

Deforestation is seen as a key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It is responsible for up to 15% of global emissions and has an adverse impact on ecosystems and biodiversity. In Asia, the rush to convert land for palm oil is reducing the land and water available for food. As one of the world’s largest buyers of palm oil for use in our products such as margarine, ice cream, soap and shampoo, we know we have a leading role to play.

As a result, we now source all our own palm oil from certified, sustainable sources, mainly through Green Palm certificates. Our next goal is that all palm oil will be traceable to known sources.

The key to our success will only be through strong partnerships with our local suppliers. In Cikarang, located in Indonesia’s West Java, palm oil is used as an ingredient to make spreads, savoury products and cooking oils for the Indonesian domestic market. Working with our three Indonesian suppliers and using the FoodReg system, we can identify the 80 crude palm oil mills that supply our Cikarang factory. With this information, we secure our supply chain, eliminate any palm oil that is not certified or traceable, and identify which suppliers can fulfill our Sustainable Palm Oil Policy.

Food security is increasingly under threat and there is an urgent need to source sustainably. The Grow Asia Forum needs to look at how we can partner – business, government, smallholder farms and NGOs – to ensure the future of our region’s food chain and indeed the sustainable future of our communities.

Author: Peter Ter Kulve, President, ASEAN and Australasia, Unilever

Image: A farmer carries harvested wheat crop on the outskirts of Jammu April 27, 2009. REUTERS/Amit Gupta