Sustainable Food Value Chains

Producing more with less by increasing efficiency and improving ecosystem services is a core concept of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  The principle objective of this concept is to promote sustainable agricultural practices, improve the livelihoods of farmers and make healthy food available to all consumers. Notwithstanding,civil society organizations, governmental bodies and multinational corporations have come to rely on industrial agriculture methods to expand food production. While intensive agriculture methods have helped to reduce the number of undernourished people and drive rural development, these achievements have come at a high cost. In many developing countries, decades of intensive cropping have degraded fertile land, depleted groundwater, provoked pest upsurges and led to the destruction of natural ecosystems with negative biodiversity impacts.Intensifying agricultural production has strained the financial status of smallholder farmers,as they are responsible for the purchase of fertilizer and agricultural inputs, often at high interest rates.

Fortunately, there is growing evidence that agricultural production can be intensified in a sustainable manner. For example, integrated pest management (IPM) reduces use of synthetic pesticides and improves natural biological pest control as an ecosystem service, crop rotation can replenish soil nutrients and efficient irrigation can reduce impacts on local water sources. These and other sustainable agricultural practices are slowly spreading throughout the supply chain, by way of voluntary standards and private certifications schemes.

In recent years, a few business models have incentivized producers in developing countries to increase food production using sustainable practices and improving the provision of sustainable goods to local consumers. One of the most wide-spread innovations is the emergence of new institutional and market intermediaries who take on a wider range of roles in linking farmers with markets for their produce. These intermediaries include a range of organizations that provide support to producers to learn sustainable production techniques and market their sustainable products and services through emerging systems or partnerships (e.g. participatory guarantee systems (PGS), marketing cooperatives, training centers, private traders or local public procurement agencies).

Access to financial capital (e.g. loans and subsidies) also plays an important part in raising income and contributes to their quality of life. Social capital - networks of relationships among a community - is also important to farmers, especially smallholder farmers in rural communities where they can pool resources to purchase shared equipment or negotiate better prices for inputs.Support to farmers provides the opportunity to raise their level of resiliency to fluctuations in the marketplace. As such, schemes which direct resources to farmer organizations are critical to sustaining quality production.

Gradually, producers come to appreciate improvements in the natural environment on their farms, the bounty available to their families and surplus income. Research has shown that farmers’ physical stamina improves with a shift away from agro-chemicals and the consumption of locally available organic food. The cultivation of fruit, vegetables, commodity crops and medicinal herbs by local farmers further contributes to their household food security. In other words, sustainable forms of agriculture offers farmers’ families and communities improved health and well-being.

How to drive farmers and organizations towards more sustainable practices? What are the motivations and driving forces for them to do so?

Not unlike farmers engaged in industrial agriculture, organic farmers rely on technological innovations, private sector incentives and governmental subsidies to optimize their economic position. Among the range of incentives that might motivate farmers to adopt more sustainable practices are market drivers (along with supporting resources). Some examples of such market drivers and resources or offerings include:

  • ‘climate-smart’ agricultural solutions
  • consumer demand for “sustainable” products (e.g. organic, fair trade, ‘green’ labels)     
  • market outlets for sustainably produced food and fibers (locally and abroad)
  • cottage manufacturing
  • education and training

While these programs are often available at a governmental level, they are often detached from the real needs of farmers. To ensure that expenditures contribute directly to farmers’ livelihoods and well-being, it is important that partnering organizations:

  • Engage stakeholders
  • Provide research on farmers needs and capabilities
  • Take into account local realities
  • Evaluate potential benefits based on expenditures and available manpower

In the past, many organizations have utilized “audits” as the singular tool to guarantee food quality, labor rights, health, safety and environmental compliance.  At Global Standards, we are seeking partners interested in creating collaborative tools to empower farmers to strengthen their economic standing and deliver sustainable business models. Through collaborative approaches, Global Standards aims to sustain value chains by benefitting consumers, stakeholders and the natural environment. Through in-depth interviews and physical assessments, partners will better understand the impacts of their agricultural activities on farmers’ communities. Once strengths and weaknesses are identified, Global Standards experts will offer suggestions aimed at raising the livelihoods and well-being of producers. Our experts will identify intervention points for sustainable change. Development programs will be designed to suit client’s objectives and meet the needs of their stakeholders.

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