Tate & Lyle has launched a programme to help Chinese stevia growers lower their environmental impact and secure economic gains from production of this ‘in demand’ natural sweetener.
Developed alongside environmentalists Earthwatch Europe, the initiative is being rolled out with support from Nanjing Agricultural University (NJAU), which conducted a pilot in-field study and will provide on-the-ground support to local farmers through training, farm visits and best practice sharing.
It is hoped these efforts will provide farming families in Dongrai, East China, with help to ‘modernise’ farming practices and potentially achieve accreditation with the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative.
This will help Tate & Lyle’s stevia suppliers ‘secure a more sustainable future’ while also enabling its customers to offer ‘sustainably-sourced, plant-based sweeteners’, chief executive Nick Hampton noted.
Shaping development of the 'young' stevia sector
According to market research firm EMR, in 2020 the global stevia market reached a value of US$520.32m.
Anna Pierce, Director of Sustainability at Tate & Lyle, explained that – compared to other commodities – it remains a relatively ‘young’ sector. This, she told FoodNavigator, presents a unique opportunity to ensure sustainable agricultural practices are baked into production models as the segment expands.
“Stevia growing is a comparatively young agricultural sector and we are excited to play a role in ensuring it develops sustainably, both from an environmental perspective but also in support of grower communities. Demand for stevia is high and growing at a rate of 10-13% annually, so by helping to establish and share best practices now, we can make a real difference into the future.”
Tate & Lyle’s action plan is based on learnings from a ‘first-of-its-kind’ study undertaken by Earthwatch, which assessed the environmental impacts of different approaches to stevia production in China, where most of the world’s stevia is grown. The study identified a ‘significant opportunity’ to drive environmental improvements in stevia production and support the company’s suppliers in Dongtai.
In order to lower the environmental impact of stevia production, Tate & Lyle wants to encourage farmers to switch from using synthetic chemical fertilisers and pesticides to ‘more sustainable alternatives’. This will be achieved by providing guidance on application timing, targeting and volumes. Earthwatch also advocated a ‘comprehensive prevention and control approach’ to protect against pests, crop diseases and weeds, replacing plastic materials used for mulching with more sustainable alternatives. Farming practices to help maintain soil health though improved compositing to build soil carbon will also be promoted.
Socio-economic benefits support farmer engagement
Alongside reducing environmental footprint, these practices also have the potential to boost farmer incomes.
“Through the pilot programme, farmers will receive training and on-farm help from experts at NJAU to implement a range of conservation practices, based on recommendations from our Earthwatch study, including non-tech, low-expense improvements, that will help to significantly reduce their environmental impact, while supporting their long-term profitability,” Pierce noted.
Engagement with farmers is key to the project’s success and Pierce is confident that the argument that adopting these practices will boost on-farm profits and resilience will prove compelling.
“Around 100 farmers joined our kick-off event and are watching the results of the pilot closely to implement the new farming practices for next year’s growing season. Engagement in the programme is an attractive offer to farmers looking to offer a premium stevia product, while managing the effects of climate change on their farms, such as water scarcity.
“Farmers will also be invited to participate in and receive mentoring through the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) certification process, which, in turn, will allow us to offer our customers certified sustainable stevia.”