Many of us know the famous line from Paddington Bear “marmalade’s very expensive in Darkest Peru” but what would Paddington say if he knew the true cost of his favourite marmalade…?
We had a family trip to see the new Paddington 2 film this weekend, which is very funny by the way. Any of us who grew up on the Paddington Bear books knows of his origins in ‘Darkest Peru’ and of his love of marmalade, but did you know that there’s a good chance the oranges you buy in the supermarket come from Peru?
In recent years more and more of our citrus fruit (not just oranges but mandarins, lemons and so on) are being imported from Peru. It’s now the fifth biggest source of citrus fruit for the UK. For the most part these are grown along the dry Pacific coast regions of Peru in areas with high water stress. With the expansion of irrigation for growing citrus, and also for other crops like avocados, asparagus, and grapes, we need to make sure that supplying our UK demands for year-round availability of particular crops doesn’t mean impacts for freshwater ecosystems and local communities in Peru. We’ve seen this happen so many times all over the world: for example growing asparagus in Ica, Peru, and also berries from Doñana in Spain. WWF’s experience globally is that, once the water is taken for agriculture, when we’ve realised we’ve gone too far, it’s very difficult to get it back for the rivers and wetlands.
UK supermarkets have a really important role to play in ensuring that the supply of fruit and vegetables from our international sourcing locations is sustainable in the long term. There are two key parts to this: the first is getting their suppliers to do the right thing on their own farms. But this alone won’t prevent problems of over-abstraction of rivers and groundwater. Any given farmer can put in place world class water management and very high water efficiency, but if their neighbours don’t (or they simply have too many neighbours all abstracting water) the situation is still unsustainable. So the second key part to making this work is for supermarkets to come together with other stakeholders (other retailers, growers, communities, and the government) in those sourcing areas to ensure that the rules that allocate water at a catchment level leave enough for nature and communities. Given the rate of growth of UK imports from Peru it seems like this needs to happen soon, before all the water is diverted to grow our oranges and it becomes very tricky to pull it back.
There are some great examples of this collective action approach beginning to take hold, like the work that the Alliance for Water Stewardship have been doing with partners in Peru (including M&S, who’s Christmas advert, incidentally, features Paddington Bear) and how the Courtauld 2025 commitment is beginning to get the UK food and drink sector to work together on water issues in key international sourcing locations. It feels like the time is ripe for scaling this up and, where the UK sources its produce, getting water management right before we run into more serious problems, rather than trying to fix it once things have gone wrong.
When Paddington said that “marmalade’s very expensive in Darkest Peru”, maybe he was onto something, but he probably wasn’t thinking about the true cost of water…