Category Archives: Organic Agriculture

Moving Upstream: Why Farmers Need to Gain Control over their Inputs

This post is adapted from the blog of Social Business Network’s Communication and Sustainability Director, Rachel Lindsay.  The original post can be seen at Sustainable Farming in Nicaragua.

The ground is fertile for new sustainable agricultural markets, pun intended.  Not only is there  growing consumer awareness and expanding markets for organic and sustainably grown products, but a recent estimate places a $4.5 billion value on the “green agricultural technologies” market over the next decade, including improvements in available biopesticides and organic non-petroleum based fertilizers.  Which is great, except that with harsher climate extremes and increasing intensity of pests and diseases, it is unclear whether this investment will result in increased production yields or simply be necessary to maintain the current level of production.  And of course, this doesn’t mean $4.5 billion for farmers – unless farmers come together to invest in the development and creation of their own amendments.  The infrastructure within the agricultural cooperative movement should give farmer cooperatives an advantage in centrally producing economical and ecological inputs for their member farmers, retaining some of the value of this growing industry in the hands of small farmers.   Since it is in the best interest of farmers to have ownership over the quality and source of available amendments, supply chains should come together to create policy and promote business models that give farmers a stake in the upstream agricultural supply markets.

UNCTADThe recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Trade and Environment Review 2013 is entitled “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late” and stresses the need for transformations in our food systems that strengthen farmers’ ability to employ ecological practices that increase the stability and health of agriculture and the environment.  The report, compiled by over 60 experts in the field, lists as one of its key points the need to recognize farmers as more than just producers.  Farmers are managers of agro-ecosystems that impact public goods and services including water, soil, land use, energy, biodiversity and recreation.  When we recognize them as managers with influence in several areas of long-term impact, the resources that we make available to them and the role they play in trade relationships and business takes on greater importance.  In one section entitled “Democratizing the Role of Agriculture to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century,” the report outlines the effects of the consolidation of corporate interests in agriculture – from monopolization of upstream markets including seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, to lobbying and influencing trade and farm policies that protect corporate interests and rights over the rights of farmers.  Although as stewards of the land farmers have the potential to greatly impact carbon sequestration, erosion, local food systems and energy production, the consolidation of corporate interests effectively prioritize profit margins on fertilizers, seeds, and retail over supporting good farm management and profitability.  As the graph below from the Canadian Department of Agriculture shows, the price of fertilizers is directly linked to the rising cost of fuel, diminishing profit margins for farmers.

From 1999 the gap between the cost of fuel and cost of crops on the market has widened at an increasing rate, reducing profitability margins for farmers.

From 1999 the gap between the cost of fuel and cost of crops on the market has widened at an increasing rate, reducing profitability margins for farmers.

The UNCTAD report suggests a variety of concrete actions that should be relevant especially within fair trade and alternative supply chains.  There are examples of farmer groups who have made investments in the production of fertilizers and seeds.  I have previously written about SOPPEXCCA’s fertilizer plant as a model coffee cooperative’s initiative to take into their own hands the lack of effective organic certified fertilizers on the market.  Because the farmers themselves have a stake in the fertilizer production, the quality of the finished product, and the profitability of the coffee production, the investment includes annual tests and improvements in the composition of the fertilizer they make, effectively lowering the cost of the fertilizer for farmers rather than raising it.  The Juan Francisco Paz Silva  (JFPS) cooperative produces bio-fertilizers inoculated with mycorrhiza and beneficial micro-organisms for their member farmers and maintains a demonstration plot to continually test and experiment with improved formulas.

A range of fertilizers produced by the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, Nicaragua

A range of fertilizers produced by the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, Nicaragua

Other examples of farmer groups taking a pro-active stance to protect available cost-effective quality inputs for farmers that are not controlled by  are seed savers groups and seed banks.  The difference between farmer-driven and corporate-driven amendments is simple – farmers have a vested interest in the effectiveness and quality of the product, as well as in their affordability and long-term ecological impact.  Corporations only have a vested interest in the first. As the examples of SOPPEXCCA and JFPS show, farmer cooperatives have the infrastructure to produce and monitor amendments.  In both case however, additional support would allow them to scale up their production and explore new formulas to continually improve the quality and availability of these products.  Actors within supply chains should come together to invest in the local development and production of upstream agricultural inputs.  To ensure the sustainable futures of our supply chains, we should heed the advice of UCTAD and support farmer groups in gaining ownership over their sources of inputs like fertilizers, amendments, and seeds.

What other innovative farmer-initiated production models or policies are currently working to shift upstream market control, productivity and profitability into the hands of farmers?

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Coaxing a Phoenix to rise from the Ashes of La Roya

This year, in the face of the leaf rust blight that has devastated coffee farmers across Latin America and the added insult that the coffee price on the international market have taken a sharp dive over the past year, Social Business Network has joined forces with The Community Agroecology Network and a farmer’s cooperative outside of Matagalpa called the UCA San Ramon to try to turn the onslaught of this double disaster into a turn for the better.  

One of the small member cooperatives of the UCA has been hard hit by the leaf rust, losing up to 85% of their harvest this year.  A walk through the coffee parcelas reveals not only the damage of the fungus but also signs of underlying stress and neglect – vines cover the coffee trees in certain areas, and in others the forest floor is bare and eroding.  The farmers recount the difficulties they face – first among them, the rising cost of fertilizers and fungicides, and difficulties securing financing.  Then the increased intensity of the diseases, which mean even more financing needed to purchase larger amounts of fungicides, narrowing even farther their profitability margin.

Historically this community has grappled with “organic” farming.  After a bad experience with poor technical assistance and costly certifiers, mentioning the word to any of the coop members sets off a tirade of a million reasons why “organic farming” doesn’t work.  Lack of quality organic fertilizers on the market and strict certification standards that rely heavily on verifying what farmers are NOT doing (NOT applying any agrichemicals, NOT using any non-certified off-farm inputs, not even their neighbor’s cow manure) have left many farmers frustrated and with the impression that organic farming means doing nothing and leaving everything up to mother nature.

Our new collaboration has kicked off by organizing a series of workshops bringing together the coop members, a local succesful bio-dynamic coffee farmer, and an agronomist.  For two days, we transformed a local school into a laboratory complete with microscopes and a centrifuge.  Even though the farmers have had their soil tested before, the samples are sent away to a laboratory and no one learns how the tests work.  Using a type of soil test called chromatography which reveals mineral content but also the microbial life of the soil, farmers were able to perform the entire soil test in their own community.  The agronomist, after a straightforward presentation on several different types of beneficial and detrimental fungi that either attack coffee plants or contribute to the plant’s better absorption of nutrients, went with the farmers to gather soil samples from around their farms and then used the microscopes to identify and see the different physical structures of different fungi.  Demystifying the invisible biological world that impacts so directly farmer’s livelihoods will hopefully not only empower them in this moment of crisis by giving them a new understanding of part of the crisis, but also impact how they manage their land.  Although it is common knowledge that the leaf rust virus travels by spores through the air, seeing the millions of tiny round balls on each leaf (see the image header on this post) revealed clearly how this fungus has been able to cause such devestation in the region.  Examples of beneficial fungi that were found locally were isolated using the microscopes and then used to innoculate seeds in sterilized soil to reproduce them and use them in a fertilizer that can be elaborated on-farm, improving the coffee plants absorption of minerals and nutrients in the soil.

The local farmer leading the soil chromatography process was very clear that this was not a workshop to promote organic agriculture, it was a workshop to promote better agriculture.  His own farm has only suffered a 15% decrease in production due to the leaf rust, well below the 50% national average.  In any other year he might have been met with glazed looks and disinterest from this group of farmers.  But this year, when the management systems they use have failed to mitigate the impact of this blight, their interest was keen, everyone participated, and they requested another workshop to continue deepening their understanding of soil life and assistance in using beneficial fungi to innoculate the new coffee seeds they will be planting to replace the portion of their farms that have perished due to the leaf rust.  Studies have shown that in small farmer cooperatives where management of the coffee and soil is tended to more carefully, there is less presence of rust.  Revealing the direct relationship between management and soil biology cuts through the layer of faith in purchased inputs that disempowers producers.  With the right approach, the double crisis hitting small coffee farmers right now could be transformed into an opportunity to reinforce better management practices that will help protect farmers and their livelihoods over the long term.

A Smorgasbord of Hoopla

certified-stampWhether you are a farmer, manufacturer, exporter, retailer or consumer you have undoubtedly been faced at some point with a decision regarding the many different ethical or environmental certifications.  The growth of certification has followed the growth in centralized distribution and global trade of products.  As the sheer number and variety of products available to consumer multiply, companies and consumer advocacy groups are using an ever increasing number of certifications – and their requisite symbols – as tools to differentiate products on the shelf and, through their intended implementation, affect positive changes in the lives and environments of the producers.

Historically certifications have been driven by consumer groups searching for a product that meets certain standards of production.  Supply follows demand – so once there is a demand created, producers need to be found who will opt to comply with the standards, either for ethical or economic reasons.

Individual certifications exist within a global socio-economic context that is rapidly changing.  Movements that begin with a specific cause and have grown rapidly find it increasingly difficult – or costly – to maintain their initial standards.  As an intermediary between links in a potentially lengthy supply chain, certifications need to maintain minutely detailed rules and records.  Even defining what you wish to enforce or promote may take years!  As any ecologist will tell you, rapid growth is unstable, and as certain certifications gain popularity (and profitability) standards are adjusted, fees are hiked, and consequently new certifications arise as central groups of consumer or producer advocates fraction in their attempt to maintain their original values in a new socio-economic context.

supermarket-aisle-grocery-store-shopping-cart-Favim.com-475341Many of the current debates around certifications focus on the labels of finished products, and the dilemma of the well-intended shopper faced with a befuddling array of different symbols at the grocery store.  How can they know which product has the best impact on the world? But the increased number of certifications presents producers with even more difficult decisions – often costly and risky.  The cost – both in time and money – for different certifications needs to be weighed by each producer against the potential market.  Sometimes this means a double risk – first if you are certified whether you will make the associated costs back through the difference in sales, and once you have promised a certificated product to a client, whether your production will meet the certification rigors.  Depending on whether your market is international, national, or direct to your consumer your choices for certification vary.  Not certifying at all is sometimes the best economic option – which is why a rise or fall in certifications doesn’t accurately represent an actual rise or fall in certain farming or trading practices.

In response to changing standards in widely recognized certifications such as organic and fair trade, peer-based alternatives and producer driven initiatives such as the Certified Naturally Grown and the new Simbolo de los Pequeños Productores are arising. In a market historically driven by consumer advocates rather than producers themselves, these certifications may be conduits for  empowering change. However, the growing list of certifications that producers are faced with begs the question, are certifications still the best means for enacting social, environmental and economic change through trade?