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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Holistic health for community development

This year Social Business Network and the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Coop are excited to announce two scholarships for high school graduates from Achuapa, Nicaragua to attend the National Institute for Higher Learning in Oriental Medicine (IESMO). The Japanese-funded University offers an accredited five-year program in acupuncture and shiatsu massage. For decades the farmers Cooperative has supported a small acupuncture clinic to provide alternative healthcare options to residents, and seven years ago offered the first scholarships to two young women from rural communities to study in the capital. One of them has returned to Achuapa as a licensed Doctor of Oriental Medicine, where she has worked with the cooperative to expand the clinic and stock an herbal pharmacy. This year she also taught an introductory course in herbal medicine to a group of women in the Recognition of the Unpaid Work of Women Initiative.

Along with the expansion of the clinic in Achuapa and the decision to offer another round of scholarships, awareness of holistic alternatives to mainstream medicine is gathering support in Nicaragua. As private reiki, massage, and acupuncture clinics spring up in every major city, the Ministry of Health trialled the inclusion of one natural medicine practitioner at public clinics in Managua. The new program has received strong positive feedback, with many residents choosing to use massage or acupuncture as a treatment on the public health system. The Ministry of Health recently announced a plan to open a position for a natural medicine practitioner at clinics in four other cities in Nicaragua, creating even more job opportunities for graduates of IESMO. The farmers coop in Achuapa realizes that this growing demand for alternative health care doesn’t only provide the opportunity for them to support young people on a career path in natural medicine, but also opens up a new local market for farmers to grow and process herbs for natural remedies.

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Diosmara Rayos, first year student in front of a plaque of Japanese partners at the Institute for Higher Learning in Oriental Medicine, Managua, Nicaragua.

The first recipient of this scholarship is Diosmara Rayos, 19. Diosmara is a bright young woman who has shown her dedication to studies for many years: without an available high-school near her rural community, she left home at 14 to attend the high-school in Achuapa, where she graduated at the top of her class and then studied English for two years at a community college in Esteli before hearing about the scholarship for Oriental Medicine. She comes from the small community of La Arinconada in Achuapa, a land cooperative formed during the Agricultural Reformation in the 1980’s. She became familiar with oriental medicine when her mother began treatment for a life-threatening illness at IESMO, where she was treated by Japanese doctors for over nine years. Diosmara says she was inspired by her mother’s experience to study acupuncture and massage. We are very proud of her decision and thrilled that at the end of her first semester she is among the top students in her class!

The Wide World of Women in Agriculture

Women’s empowerment, gender equality, climate change, sustainable agriculture, and the future of our food systems are topics that deserve the increasing academic and media attention they are increasingly receiving.  For academics, ethical business entrepreneurs and development professionals this means a constant growth of new resources to track impact and share political, economic, and educational strategies that bring together our common goals.  A new collaboration between “Feed the Future,” the US Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, USAID, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative has announced a new index that will add to the resources publicly available.

The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) claims to track women’s engagement in agriculture in five areas, including relative empowerment to men in their households and communities:

  • Production
  • Resources
  • Income
  • Leadership
  • Time Use

The case studies for the base-line survey work for the index were conducted in Bangladesh, Guatemala and Uganda, and the brochure claims that 19 countries will initially be included in the index. Although it is great to see resources directed toward understanding and improving the role of Women in Agriculture by these development organizations, this is by no means a strictly developing world issue. As organizations such as the Women’s Food and Agriculture Network in the US and the Women’s Food and Farming Union in the UK demonstrate, women have been and remain a vital force in the success of food production around the world, and deserve recognition and equal resources for their work. The increasing attention on the role of women in agriculture will hopefully expand to include a look at the empowerment struggles of women world-wide as stewards of the land and essential contributors to the future of our food.

Creative Supply Chain Transparency

Social Business Network and Ético bring actors together from every link of the supply chain to build mutual understanding and drive innovation and social change. An integral aspect of this work is good communication, often involving translation, deep levels of cultural understanding, and use of clear images. A high dose of creativity helps of course! Here is a beautiful example of how Social Business Network partner Thanksgiving Coffee uses imagery to educate their consumers about the many production stages in their coffee supply chain:

Coffee: from farm to cup – poster designed by Sven Sandberg Studio

Coffee: from farm to cup – poster designed by Sven Sandberg Studio. Click the image to read Thanksgiving’s blog post about this project!

 

Roots in Revolution

Make sure to check out the Spring 2014 issue of the Fair World Project’s publication For a Better World.  It features an article by Social Business Network director Nick Hoskyns on the Roots of Revolution, and photos of the fantastic ladies of Wikilí, Achuapa and one of the first cupping labs build in the hands of coffee producers.  You can also read the article online, spread the word – the revolution for a better world continues!

Cooperative Africa

In January Social Business Network’s director Nick Hoskyns traveled to Uganda and Rwanda with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company to visit several coffee cooperatives.

Nick brought his expertise in cooperative development to help deepen the relationships between the coffee growers, cooperatives, and buyers and resolve some transparency issues. He reflects afterward on the relevancy of his years of experience in Latin America in other continent, showing the universalism of cooperative business model.  “Uganda and Rwanda are beautiful and fascinating in their own ways with a lot of potential and really wonderful people.”

You can read more extensively about the trip on Thanksgiving Coffee’s blog.

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?