The Socrates programme promotes sustainable agriculture and biodiversity preservation


May 22nd is the International Day for Biodiversity. To mark the occasion, we put the spotlight on the Socrates programme, which encourages the suppliers of Danone’s Early Life Nutrition (ELN) division to switch to sustainable agriculture. We asked Agnès Baudet, Supplier Quality & Food Safety Director at ELN, to explain the Socrates programme and how it works to promote biodiversity.


Can you introduce yourself and Socrates?

I am in charge of Supplier Quality & Food Safety for Danone, and more particularly the Early Life Nutrition division. ELN makes food products for babies and young children. Three years ago, we launched the Socrates programme with two main goals: to engage the 1200 farmers Danone works with in a sustainable agriculture approach, and to raise awareness among our business and our consumers about the “baby grade”.

What is the “baby grade”?

Regulation of products for young children is very strict. Over 1000 molecules are regulated (pesticide residue for instance, mycotoxins, heavy metals, etc.). Our processes in our factories do not allow us to eliminate all of these contaminants, which is why they have to be managed at the root, during agricultural production. This requires our farmers to put into place specific techniques. For instance, spinach is naturally high in nitrates. To ensure low concentration and comply with our specifications, our farmers mainly produce winter spinach, which has a longer lifecycle; they also privilege the second cut (regrowth after a first cut), that is naturally less rich in nitrates.

The general public does not know about this regulation. I myself never bought baby food for my children when they were younger! I didn’t know about these requirements, and I didn’t really trust these transformed products. When I joined ELN, I realised that when I bought apples from the supermarket to make apple purée for my children, I was probably not giving them the best.

Beyond specific conditions for production, our raw materials are also very controlled: 650 analyses are carried out before we approve “baby grade” apples! I am passionately supporting this project so that young parents are aware of these questions and understand how important the baby grade is for the future health of their children.

What is the connection between sustainable agriculture and baby grade?

The baby grade is so strict for farmers that it forces them to develop practices pertaining to sustainable agriculture: they use very little or no pesticides, and when they do need them, they use reduced concentrations, for instance. They develop strategies to be sure that they are compliant with the requirements for baby food. A “baby food” farmer implements subtle practices that are way more technical than the ones used in conventional agriculture, and therefore more respectful of the environment. We have decided to engage the two topics, “baby grade” and respect of the environment, to be completely credible to the parents.

Can you detail some of these strategies?

Some farmers will create flowerbeds or grassbeds around their fields or between the trees to attract “good” insects that will act against “bad” insects and replace chemical inputs with biological control, for instance. One of the chapters of the Socrates programme is biodiversity development: last year, we set up two partnerships with an apple producer in the Czech Republic and a carrot producer in France.  We have also included in these partnerships two research institutes.

The goal was to replace chemical inputs with biological control as much as possible, and to develop biodiversity, for example by helping spiders to nest, because they feed on and therefore neutralise certain insects. The first results are very encouraging, and we are conducting the experiment again this year, to confirm the first conclusions, replicate the practice and include it in our specifications. Indeed, these two projects help us animate our community of farmers, who come to visit the exploitations and share their experience. It allows us to identify with them what works, so that they incorporate it in their practices afterwards.

What are the other chapters of the Socrates programme?

For sustainable agriculture, we also work on water management, crop protection, soil quality and animal welfare. Today, 100% of our fruit and vegetable suppliers and 50% of our cereal suppliers are engaged in a sustainable agriculture approach. It concerns all the baby wet food and cereals brands in Europe. This approach brings us to ask ourselves other questions too. For instance, we need to find areas where the pedoclimatic conditions, associated with appropriate agronomical practices, will allow us to limit the use of inputs, and notably pesticides. We also pay great attention to soil pollution, as it can be contaminated with heavy metals or nitrates, etc. Pesticides are not the only ones that are regulated! At the end of the day, our baby food is produced with high quality raw materials that are cultivated by farmers who care about the environment and are committed to this approach.

How do you make Socrates known?

Today we have seven main European countries where our babyfood products are sold. We work very closely with the marketing teams of these countries, to inform them about this commitment and about the facts they’re not necessarily familiar with. Then, they identify the arguments that are most relevant for the parents in each country, because we don’t communicate in the same way in Poland, the Netherlands or Italy. It is a key issue for our activity: informing parents that our products are elaborated with the utmost care for the current and future health of their children, of the farmers and of the environment.

- By Usbek & Rica -