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.
The 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.
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.
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?