Sustainable development according to Coop Italy

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Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) applied to the Italian agribusiness supply chain. Chiara Faenza, head of sustainable development and innovation at Coop Italy, explains the path of the true leader in sustainability, ethics and health in modern retailing. Thanks to our friend Alessandro Fantini, who collected and posted the interview on 11/25/20 on the YouTube channel of Ruminantia, our partner site, at https://youtu.be/-WZzd-Rhbrs. With a focus on proper herd management, antibiotic reduction and elimination, progress.

Ruminantia – Coop Italy, caution and precaution

Alessandro Fantini (Ruminantia). Coop Italia is one of the leading large retailers in Italy, with a market share of about 14 percent.

Its communication is focused on environmental and social sustainability, animal welfare, and an increased focus on human health. With attention to practical and concrete aspects such as the use of antibiotics, pesticide residues in plants. Coop seems to have made the precautionary principle its own. In food, given European legislation, there is no problem in antibiotic, agrochemical and various residues. The national residual plan said to eat quietly. Something is always there, though, below what is called the Maximum Residual Limit (MRL). Possible interferences on human health may relate, for example, to the gut microbiome and antibiotic resistance. What is Coop Italy?

Chiara Faenza (Coop Italy). Coop Italia is the national consortium of cooperatives in the Coop system. We are among the leading players nationwide and distributed throughout the country. The difference, compared with other GDOs, is the cooperative structure involving more than 6.6 million members. Coop’s mission and founding values are related to health protection, people’s interest, environmental protection and conscious consumption. We thus try to decline in the various areas the actions that-according to scientific evidence and sometimes according to the precautionary principle-translate policy into concrete facts along the production chain.

The Coop brand product is the ultimate testimonial of what, in fact, we try to ground along the animal and plant production chain. Let’s start with primary production: breeding techniques and agricultural production. We then move on to processing, logistics, distribution and the end consumer. Communication is used to promote informed purchasing choices.

Let’s Breed Health. Reduce and eliminate antibiotics in animal husbandry

Residues must be in accordance with the law. It is clear from the residue plan that the problem is not residues at all, however, there are related issues such as antibiotic resistance. In our products, residues are below the legal limit and trending toward zero. In animals and humans, it can lead to the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance. A resistance of organisms to these molecules (antibiotics) that become ineffective.

One of the most important projects along the animal supply chain in recent years to address this issue. Antibiotic resistance is the development of ability to resist antibiotics and render them ineffective. In the facts, however, there is unanimity and a shared vision to reduce use and do so rationally only when they are needed, in minimal quantities, and not to use the molecules that are critical to humans. It is a common vision at the national and European level, also provided for in the ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’ . This is something that we, a few years ago, decided to invest enormous resources in, as we felt it was an important role to play in case of a paradigm shift in production chains.

The management of Coop-branded supply chains is pivotal, but our knowledge of and relationship with the entire supply chain has enabled us to stimulate and accompany a paradigm shift. Improve livestock management, animal welfare, antibiotic use and non-use to help reduce the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance. Coop-branded supply chains represent 2,000 farms and 30 million animals. We started the ‘Let’s Breed Health’ project in 2016, overseeing its development in several stages. From poultry we moved on to eggs, pork (some of it), and cattle. Then we went back to pork (complex supply chain), moving up to fish, turkey and veal. Management and knowledge of the supply chain can actually enable improved welfare and biosecurity conditions. This is the only way to reduce the use of antibiotics.

The barn of the future

Alessandro Fantini (Ruminantia). You, in a sense, condition the choices of breeders. You are the consumer’s point of contact. Represent consumer ‘sentiment’. You have a ‘vision’ of what the future will look like, so you influence the construction and management of a barn. What are the prospects on cattle, what do you ask of a farmer who supplies Coop brand meat?

Chiara Faenza (Coop Italy). A small step back on supply chain management. We started 30 years ago with different management, but gradually a supply chain control was introduced from the earliest moments and along all production steps. There are specifications that define the requirements, in relation to the various production chains. Within the specifications, technical documents related to the various stages of the production chains, the requirements at the management level and product characteristic are described. For example, in the last project related to antibiotics, we requested and succeeded in achieving the goal of having cattle raised without antibiotic use in the last 4 months of life. This was thus added as a requirement and will be communicated to the consumer on the label. Incidentally, not everything can be enhanced on the label. There are size limits; one must choose what matters most.

Antibiotics in animal husbandry. Reduction, suspension and elimination

A. Going back to antibiotics, when do we talk about antibiotics-free and when do we talk about lengthening the withdrawal time?

C. It depends on the supply chains. Antibiotic management relates to the entire management system in terms of animal welfare and biosecurity, life span and species of interest. In poultry farming (chickens and laying birds), for example, there are farms without the use of antibiotics [The Algatan Miracle, ed.]

On pigs, a suspension has been achieved in the last few months, but I would like to emphasize that there is a rational use of antibiotic, with the lowest possible use compatible with the situation in the herd, due to the adoption of better management practices. In the case of fish, action is taken in the last 6 months. For cattle, 4 months.

The situation is not static. Technology and farm management evolve, and step-by-step innovations or investments to be spread out over time (you can’t do them all at once and right away) can lead to incremental improvement. The picture just described may be overcome by facts improve in the future. Take the example of cattle. Veal and rump have specifications on aspects such as hygiene, safety and animal welfare, but also product requirements:

– adult cattle, since 2017, has been evaluated according to the CreNBA animal welfare standard as part of our certification and inspection service, which also guarantees GMO-free nutrition and other features carried on the label,

– In 2019, animal welfare assessment according to CreNBA standards was extended to dairy cow supply chains. Coop-branded suppliers thus achieved CreNBA certification on animal welfare, among other things with minimal effort since they were in fact already aligned.

Antibiotics in the dairy supply chain. The biggest challenge

A. There are dozens of meters of milk products on the outlets. What are you doing about the prudent use of antibiotics in this area?

C. On dairy products there is still work to be done. We started with meat and moved on to eggs, thanks to the contiguity of poultry farm management. With much effort, we managed to bring home the goal. Extending the project to other supply chains depends on the complexity and technological developments that will be available.

Chemistry in agriculture, agriculture without chemistry

A. Speaking of agrochemicals, cattle farms need to coexist with the farm and cannot be landless farms, such as monogastrics. Therefore, farmers are farmers. They cultivate to produce livestock herds that, if they contain residues, enter trophically into meat and milk. Coop Italy has taken important steps on the basis of the precautionary principle, with the goal of going 70 percent below the maximum residual limit for some pesticides.

C. Environmental protection and consumer health protection are priority objectives of Coop Italy in the fruit and vegetable supply chain as well. It cannot be ruled out that the use of chemistry in crops may reveal short- to medium- to long-term side effects, on the environment and on humans, that are as yet unknown.

On the Coop brand fruit and vegetable chain, we therefore started 30 years ago with environmentally friendly farming practices. Integrated pest management and the organic supply chain first and foremost.

With a systemic approach that has enabled Coop-branded fruit and vegetables to achieve a 70% lower residue guarantee than legal limits over the years. In a precautionary logic of a multiresidual approach, which considers the risks associated with the combination and synergy of multiple substances.

In 2019, with the ‘Highly Sustainable Agriculture’ project, we then engaged our supply chains to further improve. To exclude the use of certain molecules such as glyphosate, [noto anche come glifosato’], but above all to focus on the importance of management and the application of techniques with lower impacts.

Environmental footprint, precision agriculture

Precision agriculture now allows us to pursue new environmental sustainability goals on fruit and vegetables. Reduce consumption of water, fertilizer and pesticides. By 2030, -50% pesticides, -20% fertilizers and widespread implementation of organic farming techniques. With a more rational approach. Greater protection of soils, agronomic practices with less impact on soils, proper rotations. In line with Farm to Fork goals, among others.

Water is itself a precious commodity, at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in UN Agenda 2030. It is critical to reduce their use to the minimum necessary while at the same time lowering the amount of chemicals that can flow into surface and deep waters. And it is equally important to carefully manage those technical materials that, if abandoned on site [or otherwise handled improperly, e.g., mulch sheets, plastic-coated iron wires for tying plants, ed.], can create environmental problems.

Sharing and communicating values

A. Consumers are no longer being influenced ‘no matter what,’ thanks to social media, which has also made them more informative. Farmers are able to understand that the past is no more and that it needs to innovate. So many things like reducing antibiotics, growing differently, giving more space to animals, however, are seen only as investments. And conversion is not always easy. The primary production system is quite ready for this change, but will consumers direct their choices to a highly sustainable product with conscious choice? Will it go to repay the efforts made by the producers or is it still early?

C. It is essential to accompany consumers in their purchasing choices. Seeing the latest Coop 2020 report, so many aspects have changed. We are living in a state of uncertainty about what will happen in the future, and we are in a great recession. We have seen how pandemics have rewritten consumer choices. Italian consumers are increasingly health-conscious and do not seem to want to save money on food. Will they actually do it? Only time will prove us right or wrong.

In September 2020, six months after the first lockdown, 42 percent of respondents said they were attentive and focused on sustainability. This is the picture that emerges. The consumer plans to increase the purchase of sustainable food products. Environmental protection ranks first among the motivations, health protection the one between the lines.

Animal welfare, a new claim?

A. Can the ‘animal welfare’ claim guide purchases? Does the consumer choose the product with a hypothetical ‘animal welfare’ label?

C. It must be explained to the consumer what is meant by animal welfare. The stamp alone is not enough, it must be coupled with a communication system that better explicates and tells what is behind it, what it means. On the topic of antibiotics alone, the concept of welfare is ‘trivially’ summarized with the labels ‘raised without antibiotics,’ ‘raised without antibiotics in the last x months,’ etc. Actually behind this is a careful management system of animal husbandry, the antibiotic resistance issue, a significance. In the case of chicken for example, we have achieved additional goals and explain animal welfare in summary, including on the label. More space for the animal, environmental enrichments to encourage natural behaviors, more natural light, etc.

Only ‘evolved’ awareness can lead consumers to make purchasing choices consistent with their stated attentions [to the environment, animal welfare and health, ed.] Instead of choosing, for a few cents difference, the product that costs less ‘no matter what’. You have to explain the intrinsic value of the product and the supply chain and management, along with everything behind it.