Reflections on the Summit

Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Summit brought together companies, NGOS, farmers, and government to reflect together on what we are learning in the efforts to invest in mitigation and resilience in agriculture.

Agriculture is without doubt on the front lines of climate change.  We are already seeing the impact of a changing climate – variability in rainfall patterns, increased extreme weather, overall temperature increases—in many growing regions around the globe.  Particularly impacting the most vulnerable farmers.  For we who work in food systems, it is imperative to accelerate efforts to increase the resilience of farmers to be better prepared for the new world, and to accelerate efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions and sequestering carbon where possible.

In Mexico, we were able to visit with large-scale professional grain growers, smallholder dairy producers, small scale coffee growers, and innovative government agencies talk about the issues.  We chose sectors who both have sustained investments in sustainability and are highly vulnerable to climate change. Coffee, for example, is highly sensitive to rising temperatures but also has coordinated global investment in research and financing.  We wanted to learn where there was progress and where further innovation and collaboration are needed to tackle systemic barriers to scale.

We heard some inspiring stories from the farmers about what is possible.   


Dealing with water shortage issues, Daniel García changed the ways in which he prepared his soil on his maize farm, leading to better water conservation and increased income. But, change is slow and farmers are hard to persuade.  It is only when he can bring someone to his farm to show him/her how these practices can work on a “real farm” and not just a demo plot, that others are convinced.


Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers in Iowa works with farmers in Iowa to improve soil health. This entails convincing farmers to make investments now for benefits they will not see for years.  To make soils better more quickly, farmers need to change tillage practices, manage the application of fertilizers differently and incorporate cover crops and longer rotations into their system adjusting farm management to implement these changes can take several years before gains are realized. This is change is slow and hard to incentivize.  PFI uses an on-farm research model to build farmer exchange networks to share benefits and management options with other farmers and build trust in order to take the risk that is practice change.


Less tillage, crop rotation and improved seed technology  has helped to increase yields on Pedro Mendoza’s family’s maize farm.  As an agronomist, Pedro knew that conservation agriculture could help him to reduce costs and earn more, but farmers have long traditions and are hesitant to change practices. He had to convince his parents to allow him to “experiment” with conservation agriculture on their land.  Now, seeing his results, his skeptical father is convinced, neighbor farmers are interested, and some are starting to change practices. Pedro sees conservation agriculture as a way to bring young people back to the farm.


For most farmers, resilience to climate change can’t be addressed in isolation.  Resilience to all shocks is important.  Access to water and soil health are critical to agronomic resilience, but crop diversity, strong cooperatives, tools to mitigate price volatility are also important for resiliency in the face of weather and market shocks.   For climate mitigation it’s all about the roots in the ground.


Farmers on the learning journeys and at the Summit emphasized several key elements needed to de-risk and share costs for practice change. Innovations in technical assistance are needed that better give farmers the information they need for decision-making, forums that support farmer empowerment to choose new practices, and bringing farmers together to share and discuss the benefits of new practices or passing information through a trusted source.   Innovations in financing are needed to create access to long term affordable financing.  And finally, innovations in risk sharing are needed.   Changing practices is risky and often incur short-term costs for long-term benefits. Farmers need to be convinced by those they trust that practice change is worth that risk, incentivized to pay the upfront costs, and supported in implementation.


We saw what a government can do when agriculture is a priority

The Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) has made agriculture a priority, with coffee as one of the crops for which they developed an ambitious and targeted plan to jumpstart improvement and expansion. Their ‘Plan Integral de Atención al Café’ (PIAC) was designed collaboratively with Mexican farmers. SAGARPA invited farmer organizations to detail their needs, and developed the pillars of the plan to respond to these needs, which include access to better planting materials, more technical assistance and lower cost financing for renovation and investment.


We were able to visit a collaboration between the UCIPA farmer coop, Café California a major Mexican exporter and the government funding program.   Café California provides UCIPA farmers with pre-financing and technical assistance in order to renovate coffee and increase yields, with the aid of low interest financing from SAGARPA’s finance division, FIRA.  Along with increased yields and strengthened relationships between farmers and buyers, two key barriers to scale were noted to effectively invest in renovation 1) lack of trained technicians and funding to hire more; and 2) small land sizes and outmigration of youth.


We saw innovations in what companies can do to engage with farmers with information and incentives


Mars and Pepsi shared how they are going beyond sustainability standards to develop programs to address specific impacts in high priority farming systems.  By directly engaging their suppliers and farmers, they have been able to develop programs that are targeted to reduce impacts while considering shared value for all the stakeholders.   Challenges ahead include how to build markets that value sustainability on all the crops in a more diverse rotation and how to transition internally from a sustainability supported program to a procurement supported program.


Nespresso shared how they were able to develop a large scale program on reforestation alongside their quality program with farmers and fund it through carbon “in-setting”.


Intelligentsia shared their Direct Trade model, where they are supporting farmers to make long term investments based by providing a strong market signal of quality and a long-term relationship with fixed prices independent of the commodity market.


The discussions brought home that the way trade is done—the business models of buyers—matters because farmers are more likely to invest—particularly the challenging long-term investments like tree renovation – when the costs and risks are shared.  Practices that help “de-risk” farmer investments include:

  • Clear market signals about the products needed (e.g. quality grades)
  • Longer term trading relationships that build farmer confidence that the market will be there
  • More stable pricing to reduce risks from commodity price volatility
  • Product value addition such as quality, traceability, sustainability
  • And finally, a good return on investment.


And yet, all felt we are not making enough impact fast enough


The visits, stories, and discussions were uplifting – farmers, companies, NGOs and government making meaningful changes that were supporting farmers economic viability and improving practices that matter for soil, water, and livelihoods.   And, yet, after many of the stories, there was a pause, a sigh, and a deep concern that we were not making change fast enough, that we were not addressing the elephants in the room necessary to change agriculture at scale.


Commodity prices in coffee have fallen again to be near cost of production.  Farmers capture little of the value of the final product.  We need to be able to think about more structural change, about how and when farming is economically viable, when we need to accept transitions out of farming, and how commodity systems could deliver better results for farmers and sustainable agriculture.


But we often struggle to talk effectively about these tough topics – beyond identifying and acknowledging the problems – of commodity price dynamics, value distribution, and demographic change.    Perhaps the work ahead is to double down on change where we can, while pushing the boundaries of our ability to discuss and innovate in the larger system.

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