Back in 1998, retailer Continente brought together several fruit and vegetable producers across Portugal under an umbrella group, the Continente Producers’ Club (CPC), to help ensure the availability of locally sourced products across its store network, and to support domestic producers.
In the years since, the CPC has grown to incorporate close to 270 producers across all farming and horticulture sectors, with the retailer purchasing €519 million worth of certified national products from said producers in 2022.
As it marks its 25th anniversary this year, Continente parent MC Sonae is working closely with the CPC to double down on sustainability, ensuring that producers can reap the benefits of increased sustainable production.
In May, it unveiled Feira do Desperdício, a new initiative to combat food waste at production level, while it also recently convened a meeting dedicated to biodiversity and the important role that the agri-food industry can play when it comes to conservation.
At the recent EuroCommerce 30th-anniversary event in Brussels, ESM met Ondina Afonso, the president of the CPC, to discuss the group’s recent ESG efforts.
“We signed a sustainability agreement with our producers in 2021, which is very much in line with our goals when it comes to biodiversity and carbon neutrality,” Afonso explains. “We are operating 40 different initiatives across a variety of categories, including fruit and vegetables, delicatessen, bakery, and more.”
Among its core current initiatives is Zero-Residue Certification, to ensure that the fruit and vegetables in its supply chain are free from pesticide residues.
“We have been working on this project for three years, and, by the end of the summer, we will have almost all the fruits from Portugal certified under this programme,” says Afonso.
“We are actively involved in supporting our producers in this endeavour. The sustainability agreement we have with them is not just about telling them to be sustainable – we are actively investing and working together with them. Let’s make this transition together.”
This approach has proven successful – by taking on some of the cost itself, particularly in areas like consultancy and training, MC Sonae has gained greater buy-in from producers eager to implement positive changes in their operations.
“For example, we are organising training sessions around improving sustainability around certain products, such as lemons or melons,” says Afonso. “There are very specific practices that they may need to implement, and we help cover the cost of that. Also, we are paying the consultancy fees for those that want to go beyond zero residue and embrace regenerative agriculture.”
One of the most successful initiatives undertaken by the CPC – and particularly timely, given the wheat crisis brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – was an initiative to bolster Portuguese wheat production, which last year saw the retailer purchase 4,500 tonnes of domestic wheat.
“Portugal relies heavily on foreign markets for its wheat supply – around 80% to 90% is imported,” says Afonso. “To address this, we initiated a collaboration with six producer organisations five years ago, aiming to revive and enhance wheat production within the country.
“As a result of our efforts, all the bread available in our stores is made using this wheat.”
Along with investing in domestic wheat production, the retailer has also taken steps to ensure the conservation of the Montagu’s harrier eagle, an endangered bird species whose nesting habitat is located within the cereal crop.
“Due to climate change and the shifting seasons, these birds have begun nesting during the regular harvest season, causing complications for producers,” says Afonso. “To mitigate this issue, we collaborated with the producers two years ago to implement protective measures around the nests. This involved establishing non-harvest areas to ensure the safety of the bird populations.
“The Ministry of Agriculture now provides subsidies for these non-production areas, compensating producers for their losses. This holistic project aims to protect and conserve the endangered bird species while promoting sustainable agricultural practices.”
With all the initiatives undertaken within the CPC (more of which can be found here), MC Sonae ensures that producers are supported throughout the transition process, so they “don’t have to bear the financial burden alone,” says Afonso.
“We tell our producers, ‘If you want to make this transition, you have seven years, which is equivalent to just seven harvests. Let’s work together on this. We will play our part, and it will make things easier for you.”