An innovative pilot project, commissioned by WWF and plant-based food and drink producer Alpro, gives insight on how companies can reduce their specific environmental footprints based on the earth’s actual capacity rather than general sustainability principles.

“This approach goes beyond simply aiming to minimize impact,” said WWF project leader Jorien van Hoogen. “While 169 corporations have already approved science-based targets to tackle climate change, for this project, Alpro are going a step further to test science-based targets for land, water, nutrients, and biodiversity that respect planetary boundaries.”

A consortium of research institutes coordinated by Metabolic worked with WWF-NL and Alpro on the project. The ​Setting Science Based Targets for Nature study examines the environmental impact of parts of Alpro’s almond and soya supply chain. It provides recommendations on how Alpro can keep within the safe environmental limits set by the Planetary Boundaries framework.

“A healthy, happy and prosperous future is impossible on a planet with a destabilized climate, depleted oceans, degraded land and empty forests,” said van Hoogen, “which is the risk we face if Planetary Boundaries are exceeded.”

“We are proud to have pilot-tested the implementation of planetary boundaries within our supply chain,” said ​Greet Vanderheyden, Senior Sustainable Development Manager at Alpro. ​“We are on an ambitious journey towards One Planet products for our consumers.”

Sustainability consultant Brian Shaw of Metabolic said:​ “​Establishing assessment methodologies – with as robust a scientific approach as possible – is relevant to the sustainability efforts of all industries.”

Material flow diagram of Alpro's almond supply chain

Material flow diagram of the almond supply chain.

Corridors of biodiversity

The project sought to develop methodologies for measuring a company’s footprint, and also provided recommendations based on Alpro’s particular circumstances. In terms of biodiversity, Alpro’s almonds come from farms located in the Mediterranean Forest, Woodland, and Scrub biome which are under threat, below the critical tipping point of 10% vegetation cover (according to the Natural Intact Vegetation index). However, the specific areas in which the assessed farms are situated have relatively high vegetation cover of 73.8%. This means one high-impact way in which Alpro could benefit the environment is by introducing measures on its farms to create corridors of biodiversity to increase connectivity with surrounding natural habitats.

Local context for water

The Alpro pilot looked at ways to focus on the specific context of the water ecosystems that the company draws on. After assessing the freshwater balance of a selected basin, the study indicated the river system already comes under significant strain during the summer months between May and September, and climate change could make this situation worse if it alters rainfall patterns. These insights help in crafting Science-Based Targets for Water for the farms.

Understanding trade-offs between boundaries is crucial

The collective found that performance in one area is linked to impacts on other boundaries. For example, Alpro’s organic farms performed better than its conventional farms on water efficiency, soil nutrient loss, and carbon emissions. However, the organic farms produced less yield per hectare of land used, so the report explored what trade-offs they could make to increase this, such as increasing irrigation or alternative forms of fertiliser use on organic farms that are safely within the limits for water or soil nutrient impact.

Impact mitigation strategies

The report provides an overview of strategies for how agricultural value chains such as those of Alpro can mitigate their impacts based on the planetary boundaries for climate change, freshwater use, nutrient cycles, land use, and biodiversity.

Better isn’t good enough

As a result of the project Alpro and WWF-NL, supported by the research consortium including Metabolic, Wageningen University, Plansup, and IUCN-NL, identified a range of gaps in data that need to be filled in order to enable companies to set more precise science-based targets to reduce or mitigate their impact in line with what the environment can handle. The initiative is in line with the objectives of the Science-Based Targets Network, which seeks to establish a new approach to planetary resources. Crucial to this effort is the establishment of a process for companies to “budget” for other environmental impacts in the same detail as many already do for carbon emissions.

Download the report