Sustainable farming

Doñana, a region in southern Spain, produces most of the country’s important strawberry crop, close to one of the world’s most valued wetlands, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you have ever tried to grow your own strawberries, you know they are a thirsty crop. If you forget to water for two days in summer, then both the plant and your strawberries will die. A thirsty crop. An arid area. Unique biodiversity. Rising demand.  All these concerns taken together give some idea of the challenges faced by members of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform.

This is why some 70 leading food and drink companies in the world, all buyers of agricultural raw materials ranging from corn to coffee and from oranges to dairy, join forces to find solutions to a variety of environmental, social and economic issues in farming.

They have long since realised that issues such as water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and poverty in farming communities are too big and complex to tackle alone. So they decided to send their buyers to SAI Platform to create a common understanding and find solutions, in a pre-competitive way.

Agriculture uses around 70 per cent of all the freshwater in the world, but there are many more concerns that need to be addressed as an integral part of what we call ‘sustainable agriculture’.  There’s soil, biodiversity, climate, pollution and depletion, to mention a few, which we put under the heading of ‘planet’. We also pay attention to ‘people’ issues, such as labour conditions, child exploitation and safety, and the ‘profit’ dimension related to risks, prices and fair wages.

Issues such as water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and poverty in farming communities are too big and complex to tackle alone

SAI Platform aims to develop a common understanding of all these topics in order to start addressing them. We have created a set of principles for sustainable agriculture for a number of agricultural materials and complemented them with recommended good practices. We have developed universal and free-to-use assessment tools that farmers can use to show and improve their level of sustainable production.

More than 60 per cent of SAI Platform member companies have sustainable sourcing targets for some or all the raw materials they buy from farmers. These targets together form a unique potential to support the transition towards a way of farming that is capable to last and feed a growing population in future generations. It includes the possibility of reconnecting current impersonal and abstract value chains. Sustainable practices and information technology combined now allow farmers to become visible to the consumer and vice versa.

Farming is a complex maze of interrelated pressure points, which needs a variety of skills and abilities to deal with the inherent risks. For buyers to work with farmers, it requires everyone to speak the same language of sustainable agriculture. With this common language, collaboration among competitors in specific regions, such as Doñana, becomes feasible. Farming and food is the art of balancing all this.

In the absence of legal frameworks, green and fair trade certification schemes have been necessary, voluntary and useful ways to start addressing some of these concerns. However, we need to be smarter. Information technology can enable farmers to assess and upload their sustainability profile to reconnect with consumers.

Meanwhile, back to Doñana, where we have united the buyers of some 15 per cent of all the region’s strawberries. Because these customers understand and acknowledge that continuously taking increasing amounts of water is not sustainable – and they speak the same language of sustainable agriculture – we have been able to engage with local government, non-governmental organisations and other experts to work towards regulatory, technical and organisational solutions. This is the future of agriculture – and what it should be about.

Peter-Erik Ywema is the General Manager of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform