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Tuesday, 31 May 2016 07:49

Innocent Drinks and the University of Córdoba app 2016 winner of the water category of the Guardian Sustainable Business Awards

Research group AGR 227 Hydraulic and Irrigation (University of Córdoba) Research group AGR 227 Hydraulic and Irrigation (University of Córdoba)

Four years of research went into creating the Irri-fresa app, which has helped strawberry farmers reduce water by up to 40%

Doñana national park, south-west of Seville, is a world heritage site supporting millions of migratory birds. It is also a stronghold of the endangered Iberian lynx.

But the region’s nearby strawberry farms are sucking the land dry. Most of Spain’s €400m (£342m) strawberry industry is located here and, according to WWF, using up to half the water the wildlife-rich wetlands need to survive. The park may lose its prestigious designation unless it gets more water.

Six years ago, Innocent Drinks, in partnership with farmers, the University of Cordoba and the Agrifood Campus of International Excellence ceiA3, began four years of on-farm research examining a variety of irrigation equipment and water management approaches based on the different soil types, plant varieties and climate conditions.

The result is Irri-fresa: an app that calculates optimum daily irrigation times. Participating farmers have cut water use by up to 40%; in 2015 they saved 1.7bn litres.

Getting growers to participate was difficult because their water costs are very low said Jessica Sansom, the company’s head of sustainability. Free workshops and a water blog run by the University of Cordoba made the case that farmers would save on energy, fertiliser and labour costs by reducing their water use. The company also sponsored tours of Doñana: “farmers are passionate about protecting it” she said.

Securing adequate water supply is becoming more challenging for industries in many parts of the world. A recent study revealed two-thirds of the world population already experience severe water shortages. Few realise how dependent every business is on water.

Agriculture and food production obviously need water but nothing can be manufactured without water. Moreover water is needed to generate electricity or make fuel. And while solar and wind may not need water to generate energy, water is required to make solar panels and wind turbines.

Innocent could have sourced strawberries elsewhere but wanted to tackle the problem. “It’s part of our core values to try and leave things a little better than we found them. We also believe small actions can make a big difference,” said Sansom.

I hopes others can learn from its experience. Innocent is a relatively small buyer of strawberries, so has contacted larger buyers in the region, including Sainsbury’s, M&S, Unilever and Coca-Cola, to expand the reach of its water saving techniques.


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