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Scaling up sustainable agriculture

Scaling up sustainable agriculture - summary of discussion

Wednesday 29 February 2012, America Square Conference Centre, London

• Summarising the key points from the agriculture discussion group
• Guardian Sustainable Business Quarterly, February 2012

Guardian Sustainable Business, Monday 16 April 2012 16.13 BST

Issues not at farm level but landscape level:

• One delegate said that there is the need to mitigate impacts from long term agricultural approaches as well as linking farmers to world markets.

• The question is how to make the shift from focussing at farms on a local level to tackling problems, including animal welfare, in a broader sense.

• Land use planning: there is currently a focus on specific land uses. People need to understand people that it is a collective effort - they can look after their own farms but it's also their neighbours activity, for example how they manage their water resources, that will make a difference. Could common assessment by a neutral 3rd party be the answer?

Role of technology and knowledge to make better farmers

• Developing resilience in farming – how does intensification work alongside productivity to avoid new land take? Technology is the princess in the room – but can it be the solution, if it isn't transferred to subsistence farmers? In most developing countries agriculture is highly chemical which has harmful environmental and social effects. Improvements in sustainability need to be scaled across communities not just in single small holder farms.

• Sustainable intensification has to be equitable to farmers and to countries. It is about production and security so we need to think about how we distribute food, fuel and feed. Also, the problem of wastage needs to be addressed.

• At a local level, farmers need to run a business, a livelihood – how can they make it an attractive business? Through matching up policy drivers, you achieve better farms and farmers.

• Agriculture is not sustainable for many in its current form because it depends too heavily on fossil fuels. Oil has peaked and other resources will too. We have to develop a model without fossil fuels and make all energy renewable, for example trucks and cars running on biodiesel from waste vegetable oil.

Premiums and costs need to be addressed

• Old fashioned farming technologies cost the same price or less for similar levels of production. We should look more closely at traditional farming methods because it is viable to scale in beef and lamb production. There is no need to buy in fodder as it is possible to produce what you need on the farm.

• If you charge a premium, can you certify your supply chain? Is the supplier allowed to add a premium or does the retailer receive the profit with the benefits not being passed back. This is the challenge that scaling raises. Certification is not currently the answer because it attracts a premium.

• Business needs to act as a leader in driving sustainability at the farm/landscape level. While consumer demand/concern is often expressed, it isn't enough for business to rely on such demand. They have to act because it is right for their long-term business as well as the social equity and the environment.

Push/pull of customers/producers

• Subsistence farmers need to make a livelihood using the example of Palm oil – it comes back to civil society. Only the crops that supply our oil needs all have problems in their supply chain. Cocoa – also a subsistence crop with problems in corporate scale farming.

• Generally it is hard to see consumers, understanding the impact behind their choice when the crop is 'invisible'. Families have budgets it comes back to cost. Unilever and Oxfam are interesting examples where the intentions were good but when targets and metrics were made public the reality was hard to do.

• There is the example of making the business case for Shea. Shea crops empower women with agri/forestry farms to stay in their own area.

Growing demand for sustainably produced food

• The world's seven billion population is growing to nine billion with a growing middle class. Do we have time to educate consumers wanting to eat more meat? Probably not. We can't ask populations in developing countries to reduce consumption. .

• There was some disagreement over GM crops – creating hybrids to increase yields is doable but GM engineering is different. There are two sides to the debate - scientific/technical views and business.

How do we make this economically viable?

• Mainstream is about making money - turn bank investments around and convince business and consumers to get involved.

• Grade banks on sustainability. If it is low, it is unlikely to be repaid.


• A Vodafone report shows sustainable agriculture is a big market for communications. There are obvious benefits for farmers – weather info, etc. So the trick is to find these niches – where there are benefits for Vodafone for suppliers and retailers. They get consumers for life, as well as products for new customers and new markets. This is a sustainable model with no shareholder approval.

• Communication point very important for developing countries because it has a big influence on prices as well as information. In India, call centres for agriculture – paid for by broadcast service – started by a fertiliser company and were then taken over by government before being rolling out in Pakistan and Africa.

• A more controversial example is the mobile banking service, MTN Africa. Mainstream banking and micro finance adds 30% to costs a year. In Ghana, the interest on an agricultural loan can be 35%. We need to make sure that farming in developing countries is fairly financed.

Finance and business models to take projects to scale

• Within the financial sector, particularly global finance, sustainability is absent because it is often such a long time before you see returns. Companies stop doing quarterly reports and instead just complete an annual report because the return is not rapid enough. It is a long term investment. There is also pressure from shareholders who question that, they need immediate proof or there is anxiety.

• A sustainability index could help give investors confidence but this change can also come from public pressure - in 1980s students boycotted Barclays as they supported apartheid.

• As well as Fair Trade certification we should be asking – who does your accounts? And putting that information on products if Soil Association accreditation is being shown. We need to look at that aspect of business and the triple bottom line.

• There are different views globally. There is more mistrust in corporate claims in Europe – so third party endorsement is more important. Businesses not banks will lead because of food insecurity. And by business we mean farmers and producers – but there are multiple stakeholders.

The role of government and civil society

• Government has a key role in making organic and sustainable farming competitive, particularly in its use of farming subsidy, necessary because of the production costs of different crops. Equally it has a role to influence consumers, producers and retailers.

• The way government constructs market mechanisms needs to be at a global level, but often politicians don't think long term.

• Too much regulation is dangerous (look at the example of Soviet Russia). Enabling legislation is important because it gives governments an opportunity to find out what views are out there. There are so many examples of bad legislation – but it doesn't mean legislation is wrong.

• You need to appreciate the influence of the people at the top. The attitude of those at the top will bind a whole organisation in and could drive enormous change.

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