Interview with Ulrike Sapiro, The Coca Cola Company

12th March 2019

To mark Bonsucro Global Week, we’ve caught up with some of the speakers to find out about their work driving a more sustainable sugarcane supply chain. First up is Ulrike Sapiro, Senior Director Water Stewardship & Sustainable Agriculture at the Coca Cola Company.

Can you tell us more about your role at The Coca-Cola Company?

I have been Global Senior Director, Water and Agriculture at The Coca-Cola Company since April last year. My role includes leading global sustainability strategies on water stewardship and also on agricultural ingredient sourcing, two key topics for our business that are closely connected. I work extremely closely with the Coca-Cola procurement team, including our strategic sugar buyers, our suppliers and partners.

Before joining the Corporate team, I was sustainability lead for The Coca Cola Company’s Europe and EMEA (Europe, Middle-East and Africa) group and looked at these issues from an implementation perspective with a focus on water, agriculture and circular economy.

You will be presenting the results of a recent research on the impact of Bonsucro certification led by the University of Minnesota. What was The Coca-Cola Company’s role in the study?

This work demonstrates the nexus between water and food, which we have been exploring for some time. We come at this from two sides: on the one hand, as part of our water stewardship strategy, we work to replenish 100% of the water we use in our products and engage in hundreds of watershed conservation projects worldwide.

On the other hand, we engage with our suppliers to ensure our agricultural ingredients are sourced sustainably. Very often, we work with farmers to improve agricultural practices to save water or to reduce pollution. We started to work with our partners at WWF US and the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment to better understand what and where changes in agricultural practices were needed to have the biggest benefits for watershed conservation while being cost effective. Taking this approach a step further, we evaluated how voluntary sustainable farming standards, such as Bonsucro, could help drive changes to better farming practices and achieve conservation benefits at a larger scale.

I am particularly pleased that the now published study not only suggests that following the Bonsucro standard can reduce water use by 65% and nutrient loading by 34%, but also increase yield by 15%. That is an important message for farmers.

As one of the largest commercial buyers of sugarcane, how is The Coca-Cola Company leveraging its influence to support positive change in the industry?

Our commitment is to source our key ingredients sustainably and as the largest commercial buyer of sugar, we understand our leadership position in the industry. Many of the risks in the sugarcane supply chain are systemic and beyond one company to solve alone.

We want to work with others to create alignment, leverage and scale in how we approach and work with suppliers and farmers about changing practices in the field and along the supply chain. Looking to the future of population growth and increasing competition for land and resources, this will be more important than ever. That’s why we work with the industry through Bonsucro on driving positive change in sugarcane; and with other organisations for other crops.

What challenges do we still need to address in order to achieve market transformation in sugarcane?

Sustainability in agricultural ingredients sourcing is about continuous improvement and adaptation to future risks; certification plays an important role to define the look of success, to drive aligned action and to communicate standards along the supply chain. Over the past few months, I have been looking at our ingredient supply overall, trying to understand the opportunities we can scale and the structural challenges we are facing on our journey to more sustainable sourcing. Unsurprisingly, the key opportunity seems to be supporting mills and farmers that are ready and mature enough to be certifying against Bonsucro and to create a market value for the certifications. But it needs to be more than that: we need demonstrate how applying Bonsucro helps them to run a better business.

The key challenge, however, is to find a way of engaging and advancing farmers and mills that are not anywhere near certification yet or operate in highly regulated environments. We need to help them address key risks whilst advancing their economic viability. These are often smallholder farmers, and there are many of them, but they are the backbone of achieving transformation. I believe that Bonsucro has an important role to play here in galvanising collaborative action, but we will need to build on more partners and approaches to help with these situations.

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