In search of common ground on sustainable agriculture

A farmer collects organic coffee beans at a coffee field in the mountains of Peru. Photo by: REUTERS / Enrique Castro-Mendivil

EL SAUCE, Peru — Nearly half the world’s rainforests have been lost since the 1960s, and agriculture is the leading culprit, estimated to be responsible for about 80% of deforestation in tropical and subtropical countries between 2000 and 2010. With the planet needing to feed at least 2 billion more people by 2050, pressure on the environment continues to rise.

Since 2009, a United Nations Development Programme initiative has been pushing for public-private collaboration to establish more sustainable supply chains in agriculture.

The Green Commodities Programme operates in 12 countries producing highly-traded soft commodities, including Colombia, the world’s third-largest coffee producer; Côte D’Ivoire, the largest producer of cacoa; and Indonesia, the biggest supplier of palm oil.

“Working with governments on regulation is key because that is how you level the playing fields in any one country.”

— Andrew Bovarnick, global head, Green Commodities Programme

UNDP has highlighted environmental and social issues endemic to the production of commodities in all these countries. For GCP, the focus is on getting the many stakeholders involved — from multinational corporations to smallholder farmers to politicians and development initiatives — to consolidate their approach to sustainable production.

“It has become evidently clear that we need to transform our economic systems if we are to continue to prosper within safe planetary boundaries. The food system and land use is on the top of the list,” said Naoko Ishii, CEO of the Global Environment Facility, which supports GCP, at the recent Good Growth Partnership conference in Peru, where stakeholders came together in an effort to find common ground.

GCP’s efforts

In Peru, the Amazon sustains an estimated 220,000 coffee growers, producing the country’s biggest agricultural export. Many of them switched from farming coca after a government crackdown, while others have migrated to the area from poor mountainous regions. In need of more income, they often cut trees down to create more space for farming.

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In El Sauce, where part of the Good Growth conference took place, areas that have been recently deforested or replanted with crops pock the darker green vegetation that indicates the natural forest. The village itself has expanded in recent years due to migrants drawn by the prospect of farming. In a nearby indigenous community, older residents accused the new arrivals of cutting down trees to sell the land, without concern for sustainability.

GCP has been operating in Peru since 2017, supporting the government and the Junta Nacional del Café, or National Coffee Council, to formulate a national action plan. That includes a technical assistance program run by the Ministry of Agriculture, teaching farmers sustainable practices such as how to recover land that has been degraded, and how to use natural fertilizers and new technologies to increase production and alleviate poverty.

Guaranteeing land rights, particularly for indigenous groups, and mapping forests with satellite imagery to track deforestation, are other elements GCP is trying to enforce.

Martin Peter, head of the Peru office of Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, which supports the program, said the consultation process had been exhaustive, looking at “how the coffee sector is organized ... as well as at issues of quality, international marketing, social infrastructure [and] land titling.” But many projects working independently of UNDP are yet to be integrated into it. “The plan still needs lots more resources and a concerted effort,” he said.

For Tomas Cordova — chair of Oro Verde, a coffee cooperative in Lamas, 50 kilometers north of El Sauce — progress has been slow. He said political will is often lacking, though he praised SECO for helping farmers articulate their needs to the state. “In the ministries, they do not understand agriculture and issues that affect us in the field,” he said, pointing to examples such as fertilizers, and how to deal with coffee rust, a disease that has had devastating effects on the crops.

GCP has also expanded its local engagement to the palm oil sector. Grupo Palmas, a major producer of palm oil in Peru, was invited to the conference. “It was interesting to see that on the topic of deforestation and development, there are many perspectives that we will have to, in some way, find a common concept of what we want to achieve,” Sandra Doig, Grupo Palmas’ sustainability chief, commented.

How to get smallholders on board — who manage a substantial share of production area in some countries — was another topic of discussion.

While big companies are often motivated by concerns about reputational risk, the same doesn’t apply to smallholders.

“We need to consider the types of levers available for influencing and changing incentive structures that influence the behavior of the producers,” said Andrew Bovarnick, global head of GCP, at the Lima conference.

GCP has experimented with various options, such as working with financial institutions to provide credit at reasonable rates to farmers who comply with sustainable practices. Encouraging companies to source sustainably can also motivate farmers who may otherwise be excluded from their business — Grupo Palmas has launched a program offering technical expertise to smallholders to increase sustainable production.

GCP has also engaged with the Chinese government and industries, who are major buyers, to purchase from sustainable sources.

“Working with governments on regulation is key because that is how you level the playing fields in any one country,” Bovarnick said.

Engaging companies

Despite commitments by hundreds of multinationals to reach zero deforestation by 2020, achieving that deadline is not widely expected.

Part of the challenge is in tracking supply chains. A tool published by Global Forest Watch in June highlighted just how difficult that can be. It shows that multinational food company Olam, for example, bought palm oil from just 13 direct suppliers in 2018, but its supply chain stretched to more than 1,200 mills in eight countries.

Companies cannot just rely on certification systems. Instead, they “need to be more personal and understand where their produce comes from and get to know their farmers,” Bovarnick said.

Stephen Donofrio, director of Forest Trends, a nonprofit group that tracks companies’ environmental impact, said trying to achieve zero deforestation is complex and may not be possible for all firms.

Nonetheless, it is important for companies to focus on “milestone practices,” including developing policies “centered on social development, clearing up water ways, the use of fertilizer in agriculture, and understanding who your suppliers are, to ensure they are using the best possible practices,” he said.

Bovarnick said the need to focus on systems change means there is no “quick fix.”

“It takes a long time. It is often affected by politics and changes in government, but also relationships between different stakeholders who don’t necessarily get along so we need to build trust,” he said.

The hope is that if GCP’s efforts can pay off in some countries, the model for sustainable agriculture can be replicated elsewhere.

About the author

  • Paula%2520portrait

    Paula Dupraz-Dobias

    Paula Dupraz-Dobias is an award-winning reporter and documentary producer based in Geneva. She has reported on international organizations, business transparency, environment, and development from Switzerland, Peru, and the United States. Her work has been featured in Vice, Al-Jazeera, Quartz, France Télévision, and elsewhere. She was awarded the Prix Nicolas Bouvier 2018 for her in-depth coverage of international organizations in Geneva.