Category Archives: Sustainable Agriculture

Part of the Problem or the Cure?

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Graph courtesy of OXFAM

OXFAM recently published a report looking at the 10 biggest food and beverage companies climate practices called “Standing on the Sidelines”. The data collected from these ten companies reveal a threatening cycle of emissions and environmental damage – that while agricultural yields and prices are drastically affected by volatile climate crises, they are at the same time contributing to greenhouse gas emissions that create the volatile climate. This report shows that our food systems are ultimately flawed if they don’t take future production sustainability seriously and responsibly. Creating markets and incentives for sustainable food production is more important than ever to ensure that our food production is part of the problem rather than the solution. Ethical businesses that put sustainable values into practice like the cooperative-owned import company Ético, and the hundreds of companies that purchase from farmer cooperatives that practice reforestation, carbon sequestration, and soil conservation are actively working to reduce that blue slice above that represents industrial agricultural production emissions from the biggest ten food and beverage companies in the world. Studies such as the Rodale Institute’s paper on Regenerative Agriculture show there are concrete actions that farmers can take to reverse the negative impact of food production. What else can we do to build and support the supply chains that value regenerative farming practices to make them the leading examples in the food and beverage industries?

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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?

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.

Closing the Gender Gap

Image courtesy of the BBC, www.bbc.co.uk

Image courtesy of the BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk

Last week the World Economic Forum published the 2013 Gender Gap report.  The report began in 2006 and since then has attempted to annual review the accessibility of each nation’s resources to men and women.  The report focusses on 4 areas of equality – health and survival, educational attainment, political empowerment and economic participation and opportunities.  The scores are then averaged to create an overall ranking of countries.

In Latin America, a relatively small region of the world with closely neighboring countries, there is a large discrepancy in the WEF report’s finding.  While Nicaragua just slips in to the highest ranking countries in the world at overall 10th place, Guatemala ranks 114th – the lowest in the entire Western Hemisphere after Suriname in 110th.  Nicaragua’s 10th place ranking has made national news and earned it a place on many summary reports such as this one from the BBC on par with the European countries at the very top of the list – like Iceland, Norway, and Ireland.  But a glance at the breakdown by area shows that Nicaragua’s scores are disparate:  While a law passed two years ago requiring all political parties to support 50% women candidates in local and national elections is most likely responsible for the 5th place rank in political empowerment, the country lags behind in other areas, most notably in Economic Participation and Opportunities where it ranks 91st.  In these productive yet still resource-tight countries, there’s no question that closing the gender gap every year overall marks important advancements in the quality of life for its citizens.  But there’s still a lot of work to be done, which is why this report supports the relevancy of Social Business’s work with economic empowerment like the Recognition of the Unpaid Work of Women.  In fact, across Latin America the rankings for equality of Economic Participation and Opportunities fall in the 90th and 110th percentile, yet another reason to support equitable trade and trading organizations like cooperatives that uphold gender equality as central principles in their work.

Supporting Farmers Affected by Climate Change through Better Business

This past June OXFAM published a discussion paper entitled: “Climate Change Risks and Supply Chain Responsibility“.  The paper explores the role that trade businesses can and should play in supporting the primary producers of raw products in adapting to the effects of climate change.  The paper highlights three case studies and uses them to formulate a list of positive actions that companies can take to help small producers and strengthen supply chains in the face of increasingly drastic weather patterns and natural disasters.  The three examples used are Starbucks and coffee production in Colombia, Marks & Spencer and cotton production in Pakistan, and The Body Shop and sesame production in Nicaragua.  Although each study contains a concrete example of recent climatic changes that have directly affected at least one season’s production, only the case study of The Body Shop included direct input from individual producers.  In fact, many of the actions suggested by OXFAM are drawn from the example of organized sesame farmers in Achuapa, Nicaragua.  The five actions identified in the report are:

  • Raise awareness and understanding of adaptation within the business
  • Ask producers about current climate trends and impacts
  • Build longer-term and more stable relationships with suppliers
  • Support community development and environmental sustainability
  • Work through existing institutions, including governments

Within these five actions, several specific suggestions are drawn directly from the example of cooperatively produced sesame in Nicaragua – such as working with cooperatives of producers, supporting reforestation and diversification efforts, and raising awareness about the often unseen and unpaid contribution of women in the production chain.  In reviewing the case studies highlighten in the paper, the SBN can add two additional characteristics of the Body Shop’s sesame supply chain that are examples of resilience in the face of climate change and increasing risk in production:

Small Producer Land Ownership: The case example of the cotton industry in Pakistan discusses the devastating impast of flooding in 2010 and 2011, which destroyed nearly 20% of the national harvest and affected 20 million people.  The paper explains that the financial burden of the flooding disproportionately affected small-scale farmers because a high percentage of them rent land from large land owners.  After the damage these tenant farmers forced to uphold their rent despite a destroyed crop, assume all the work of clearing and restoring the lands, and are most likely exempt from any government assistant money that is handed out to landowners only.

In Nicaragua, the land reformation that came as a result of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979 has resulted in a high rate of land ownership among small farmers.  The short term financial burden of destructive climatic events are still felt and assumed by producers, however the long-term advantages of land ownership include incentives for reforestation, better soil and water management, access to government assistance, and stability of production yields and quality.  Business supply chains could express support for national and local policies that help small scale producers gain access to land and mortgages, and help link farmers with sources of financing to facilitate land purchases.

Small-scale Producer Control of the Supply Chain: Although OXFAM’s paper recognizes the fact that the Nicaraguan sesame farmers were able to mitigate the financial impact of harvest loss because they provided oil rather than raw product, the ability for businesses to support organized farmers in gaining control of the supply chain is missing from the list of possible actions companies can take.  The example of sesame oil sales to the Body Shop shows that while both yeild and quality in the producer cooperative were negatively affected by heavy rains in 2010 and 2011, the negative financial impact to the region was mitigated by the cooperatives ability to purchase sesame from affiliated producer cooperatives and honor their sales contract with the Body Shop.  Companies who wish to build longer-term and more stable relationships with their suppliers can directly support organized small-scale farmers with financing and technical support to help them gain control of the supply chain, resulting in more resilient producer communities and a more consistent product.

A business out of doing your business?

There are many reasons why the United Nations created a World Toilet Day (October 19th).  Most of them are pretty straightforward – bringing awareness to the simple disease prevention, environmental, and social benefits of having a sanitary private place to do your business.  Some of the benefits are surprising – such as having a direct positive correlation with girls attending school.  We can all understand how a toilet can raise our quality of life.  But when the Bill Gates foundation announced a “Reinvent the Toilet” competition with one of the requirements being that the toilets need to cost no more than a nickel a day to operate, several of the new designs proposed the unthinkable – making profit from waste.  Some business from your private business concepts: make fertilizer, generate electricity, and even farm high-protein grubs for animal feed!