Image of growing mushrooms in the forest

The new possibilities enabled by sustainable agriculture (Part I)

The road to sustainable agriculture winds back to the mid-1900s. The end of World War II resulted not only in a baby boom, but a technological boom as well, which yielded financial and material prosperity. However, not all members of society were prosperous: low-income agriculture workers often worked hard and under rough conditions, without reaping the financial benefits of their labor. The injustice was recognized in conjunction with the Fair Trade Movement. This was one of the social movements in the 1960-70s that focused on helping the underprivileged. Some of the earlier participants were international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as SERRV, Oxfam International, EFTA, and WFTO

Along with the growing concerns over economic and social justice, or rather lack thereof, there were growing apprehensions about the substances used to make food and their environmental impact. This marked the beginning of sustainability standards and certifications. For example, the objective of the Rainforest Alliance is to “develop a greater social, environmental and economic impact, giving farmers and producers an enhanced framework to improve their livelihood while protecting the landscapes where they live and work”. The EU Ecolabels were established in 1992, followed by additional standards and certifications affecting social equality, economic prosperity, and environmental quality. 

These trends developed to become what society now coins as sustainability. Beyond NGO qualification, society as a whole has become more aware of sustainability issues. Now in the twenty-first century, consumers choose products not only according to price and preferences but also the environmental and social impact of the brand. 

Agriculture and sustainability: a long-term triangular relationship 

Diagram

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) definition of sustainable agriculture calls for changes in farming methods in order to meet the needs of tomorrow’s world population, with a minimal or negative impact on climate, community or capital, which are the three main angles discussed in relation to sustainability: 

The environmental angle – Agriculture has an enormous environmental footprint as a direct impact of resource consumption. The expansion of farmlands is one of the leading causes of carbon emission, deforestation, and the loss of biodiversity. Sub-optimal farming practices result in soil degradation and water scarcity. The relationship is complex: Agriculture simultaneously causes environmental changes and is affected by these changes.

 

Diagram showing the environmental impacts of food & agriculture
Source: World Economic Forum

The economic angle – Traditionally, farmers received a very small share of value-chain economics, especially in commodity and long supply chain settings. According to Fairtrade International, a living income lets members of a farming household afford a decent standard of living, including housing, nutrition, education, healthcare, and more. If small-scale farmers cannot afford this once their work-related expenses are met, “global food supply chains will never be sustainable, rural communities won’t prosper, and the natural environment will suffer the consequences.” 

The social angle – Social issues such as child labor, exclusion of women, and physical safety also affect workers in the agricultural sector. The International Labor Organization (ILO) states that 60% of child laborers aged five to seventeen work in agriculture – fishing, forestry, farming, and stockbreeding. Many of them are unpaid family members and likely engage in activities that impose safety risks. In certain countries in South Asia and Africa, some women do not own farms for cultural or legal reasons and therefore are not entitled to land rights. The World Economic Forum claims that nearly 50% of small-scale farmers are female “but own less than 20% of the world’s land”.

Stakeholders in promoting sustainability in agriculture

The global community recognizes the challenges of feeding the world’s growing population sustainably. Among policymakers, the European Union initiated the Green Deal as an action plan to become climate-neutral by 2050, by mobilizing the investments and financing tools to promote efficient use of resources. The goal is to create a cleaner economy, restore biological diversity, and cut pollution. Many countries are pursuing similar initiatives.

Several non-profit organizations also play a significant role in setting standards on a global level. Organizations such as Rainforest Alliance, Better Cotton Initiative, and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil developed and continuously update a set of environmental and social criteria according to which producers and stakeholders in each respective supply chain must comply in order to receive certification. Such seals of approval have become a prerequisite – or at least a strong plus – among agricultural buyers and ultimately end-consumers of relevant products.

In the private sector, many stakeholders are actively promoting sustainability initiatives and some are recognized leaders in this field. In its 2019 annual sustainability report, Starbucks outlined several targets and achievements, including the plan to provide 100 million coffee trees to farmers by 2025, of which 40 million trees have already been distributed since 2015. These trees replace the ones that are declining in productivity due to age and disease and help improve the quality and yields of their harvests while utilizing fewer resources. In addition, Nestle collaborates with several suppliers to provide support and training for farmers in order to improve their economics, with several active programs ranging from coffee growers in Indonesia to dairy farmers in Brazil. McCain and McDonald’s also joined forces to provide grants for potato growers in the UK to improve soil quality and water management. 

In addition, many companies also collaborate to form research and action groups to share conclusions and set standards for their respective value chains. See for example Sustainable Rice, Sustainable Nut Initiative, World Cocoa Foundation, and others.

How can we make sustainability sustainable?

Stakeholders’ initiatives are a great starting point. However, connecting all stakeholders throughout the supply chain is still a tough assignment. Even in the same supply chain, each stakeholder has different goals and priorities. In many commodity crops, the supply chain is very long and consists of numerous layers of intermediaries, from farmer to end consumer. 

Let’s look at one specific example: the coffee supply chain, which typically contains multiple and diverse intermediaries pursuing different activities – growing, drying, milling, roasting, transporting, trading, retailing… The below infographics shows why it is so difficult and challenging to make sustainability sustainable.

infographic of coffee supply chain
Source: Visual Capitalist

As a result, it is extremely difficult to have visibility of what is going on in the fields. What farm inputs are used, how much of them, and how effective are they? What are the farmers’ agro-economics? What is the impact on soil and water? Without establishing a baseline, it is difficult to start talking about sustainability, let alone making improvement plans, and tracking the progress.

To be continued….

Now that we understand that achieving sustainability is important but complex, let’s discuss how technology can be a game-changer in the journey towards a sustainable agriculture ecosystem. This will be done in the second part of this series.

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