Putting food in the world’s mouths has always been difficult, and doing it sustainably is only going to get harder

The need to produce more food with minimal environmental impact has never been more pressing or more challenging. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.1 billion, a 34% increase over the current figure. Crop yields are increasing at about 1.8% a year for grain farmers globally, but climate change is holding back that increase by about 2.5% each decade, according to a December 2015 report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The task of feeding those additional people is complicated by changing dietary patterns, water scarcity, declining soil quality, energy price fluctuation and the unpredictability of climate change. “We need an intensification of sustainability,” says Daniel Rosario, European Commission spokesperson for agriculture and rural development. “There is a danger that some farm businesses expand too rapidly and unsustainably.”

Corporations are also eyeing their supply chains in an effort to keep less sustainable foods out of their products and off store shelves. “More companies are setting goals and that is going to continue to grow,” says Suzy Friedman, agriculture sustainability director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “They are making goals as to how to reduce their footprint and make themselves more resilient to climate change. Companies that are in the food supply chain need farmer-facing partners able to provide sustainability advice and programming across their sourcing areas, so they are looking for those advisers farmers trust. We need agricultural retailers to develop programmes across the country that they can roll out to the food companies.”

The Coca-Cola Company is applying corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices worldwide through its Water-Energy-Food strategy, designed to produce its key inputs in a more sustainable way. “The three are closely linked, so we do a risk assessment, using water as a lens,” says Greg Koch, Coke’s senior director, global water stewardship. “Our ultimate aim is close the gap in water, food and energy security. By 2020, our goal is to sustainably source our top 13 agricultural ingredients as well as pulp and paper.” The company’s CSR approach has 15 guiding principles for sustainable agriculture.

Water, energy and food are closely linked

Workplace rights has been an established programme – “the human side been in place for 10 years,” Koch notes – and now the company has expanded into more environmental issues including resource management, crop protection, post-harvest handling, improved food safety and preparing for climate change. For each crop and each growing region there are other criteria, including external validation.

A Supplier Engagement Programme provides guidance to Coke’s suppliers on ways to achieve Sustainable Agriculture Guiding Principles (SAGP) compliance. This programme applies to all areas and includes Coke’s key product commodities and ingredients. In 2011, Coke bought its first batch of sugar certified by Bonsucro, a global non-profit, multi-stakeholder organisation that certifies sustainably grown sugarcane, and by July 2015, the company was working with 40 sugarcane mills in Brazil and Australia that are Bonsucro-certified. Through Project Unnati, the company is working with Jain Irrigation to train farmers in India to increase their yields while growing crops more sustainably.

Coke’s water replenishment programme, a key component of its CSR policies, has resulted in 94% of all water used in finished drinks being replenished in 2014, and the company is engaged in hundreds of water-related projects worldwide. “We’re helping communities in gaining access to supplies of water that they can amplify for agriculture,” Koch says. “We’re piping water into areas.”

Better coffee, less water

Starbucks’ seven Farmer Support Centres located in coffee-growing areas across the globe help farmers increase their yield and quality of crops while reducing the amount of water used for coffee processing, according to the company’s website.

Starbucks’ seven Farmer Support Centres

The Farmer Support Centres have agronomists and quality experts who work directly with farmers to provide support in growing high-quality coffee. Farmers have access to resources and expertise that can help reduce their cost of production, decrease the number of pests and incidents of crop disease, improve coffee quality and increase the yield of premium coffees. Farmers also receive training on soil management, field-crop production and milling processes, according to the company.

In an effort to help coffee farming communities worldwide reduce climate change impact and help support long-term crop stability, Starbucks is expanding its ethical sourcing programme with a new farming research and development centre in Costa Rica.

Starbucks is adapting the 240-hectare farm located on the slopes of the Poas Volcano into a global agronomy centre. The living lab provides farmers with hands-on learning to expand its Coffee and Farming Equity Practices, the ethical sourcing model developed with Conservation International to ensure coffee quality while promoting social, environmental and economic standards, the company says.

“In addition to supporting resiliency for farmers with techniques that can be implemented around the world, this farm will also influence the development of coffee varietals and provide new insights on soil management practices,” Starbucks says on its website.

Efforts by companies such as Coke and Starbucks show a shift in corporations’ approach to predicted food shortages. “For a very long time, the focus [in agriculture] was almost entirely on yields, such as how many bushels per acre,” says the EDF’s Friedman. “This led to enormous increases in productivity. Now there are more and more people to feed and agriculture itself relies on [natural] resources. The core of the challenge is really expanding the knowledge of farmers to what we have found already works to be highly effective and highly productive. We’re also working with retailers who work with farmers. It really comes down to performance; can they increase productivity, while decreasing their impact on natural resources.”

Eighty per cent of the world’s food comes from small farmers and they are where much of the sustainable farming programmes and strategies are aimed. For many of them, sustainable farming is a return to the traditional practices they used before they became dependent on expensive, chemical fertilisers and processed seeds. Most of these farmers are poor and need financial help and guidance to transition back to more sustainable farming.

In the European Union, funding has increased for programmes in the food sector through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Horizon 2020, which provides money for research. “This is not only about funding, but also about better coordination of research programmes across the EU,” says Rosario. CAP already has strict environmental criteria linked to policy rules in areas such as use of nitrates and a water framework directive, but new CAPs include directives to protect the environment, through measures such as maintaining permanent pastures and diversifying crop production. These are linked to the system of Direct Payments, which provides money to farmers to supplement their incomes and compensate them for producing public goods.

Farmers are also being encouraged to work more closely together, through Producer Organisations (POs). “This gives farmers a stronger negotiating position in the food supply chain,” Rosario continues. “Such POs can also provide advice on improving quality such as how to meet supermarket norms, training in areas including more sustainable production techniques and perhaps even provide the chance for joint investments in machinery.”

Also through Rural Development Programmes, the EU is seeking to boost innovation and knowledge transfer. Rural development funding provides investment options for farmers – allowing them to choose the most useful investments for their individual farms. The programmes also offer farmers the chance to participate in agri-environment and organic agriculture schemes.

“In short, it is not an option; farming practices have to become more sustainable,” Rosario notes.

One approach to sustainable farming –food sovereignty, supported by Friends of the Earth International – focuses on the “right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound methods.” To do this, FOEI supports agroecology programmes around the world, “a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture and local food system experiences,” according to Agroecology.org. The approach promotes more sustainable growing methods, more interaction between consumers and growers and cooperation among farmers.

“It can help reduce hunger, poverty and climate crisis, and keep farming going without chemicals,” says Martin Drago, a programme coordinator for FOEI based in Uruguay. “Small-scale production is a way you produce harmony with nature. It’s a project of life. It also helps to change patterns of consumption.”

The poorest people of the world produce most of the food we eat, Drago says. “They won’t be able to make a long-term investment. You need them out of poverty to be active players. In order to produce crops, farmers need access to land and need support making the investment and making the transition and establishing markets.” FOEI encourages farmers in its programmes to build relationships with consumers whenever possible. “This transition back to traditional ways of production means we need to dismantle the policies that prevent people from doing what they need to do.”

Sharing expertise

In Uruguay, part of the programme involves native seed networks, so farmers can share seeds from one year for the next year’s planting.

Native seed networks allow farmers to share seeds


Another resource, agroecology schools, which started with a few courses and seminars and now offer more formal programmes, have opened across the world to help local people regain control of agriculture.

One such group running educational programs is La Via Campesina, an international organisation that helps peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers maintain small-scale sustainable agriculture, runs more than 40 schools worldwide.

Peasant families in Shashe, Zimbabwe, are members of the Zimbabwe Small Organic Farmers Forum (Zimsoff), which represents people practising organic, traditional and ecological agriculture in Zimbabwe. About 19,000 smallholder farmers belong to Zimsoff, which is organised into four large groupings, the western, eastern, northern and central clusters. Sixty-four local smallholder farmer organisations comprise the clusters. Farmers have turned away from chemical fertilisers, relying instead on manure, and use strategies to minimise water runoff, such as contours, and apply mulch to help crops stay moist during dry spells.

And while there have been shifts in the way food is produced, climate change and increased demand could mean that consumers also may have to scale back their expectations, the FOEI’s Drago adds. “We need to accept that we cannot eat everything every time of the year,” he says. “If we’re going to produce tomatoes for the whole year, then we need big production farms. If we want to produce sustainable food, we need to have sustainable patterns of consumption.”

For its part, EDF works with small farmers through advisers, helping them learn to use nutrients more efficiently, adds Friedman.

80% of food comes from small farmers


Fishing and livestock industries face their own challenges. Global roundtables have formed to look at raising livestock more sustainably and international guidelines are being formulated, according to Tim Hardman, beef director at WWF. “The beef supply chain is very complex, so we’re taking a holistic approach to this and looking at different tradeoffs,” Hardman says. “If we do everything we can to reduce greenhouse gas production, what are the other consequences? We’re looking at how to increase the productivity of a herd so you don’t need to expand the land base; protecting fresh waterways and grazing plains. It’s how to do more with less.”

The beef supply chain is complex

Growers are eager to participate in discussions about sustainability, Hardman notes, and retail involvement in the conversations and planning are extremely important as well. “The producers have a willingness to be at the table, but they want to make sure the product is saleable at the end.”

Nearly one-third of global fish stocks are overfished or depleted, according to WWF, and that may be a low estimate, and more than 85% of the world's fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits. With more than 3 billion people worldwide relying on fish as a major source of protein, supply is lagging behind demand.


To alleviate the stresses on the oceans, commercial fisheries have to curb over-fishing, catching unwanted fish, practices that harm the ecosystem, and damage to the ocean floor by fishing equipment. WWF works with Regional Fisheries Management Organisations to help communities take charge of ocean resources to ensure their long-term sustainability, says Bill Fox, WWF’s vice-president of fisheries. 

WWF’s Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) developed a certification programme to validate sustainable practices and has 30 guidelines for fisheries. Certification criteria include complying with regulations, the condition of fish stocks and the collateral effects of fishing. “They do a finely detailed audit,” Fox says. Today, between 10% and 11% of the global catch is certified through the voluntary programme. “We went directly to fisheries and talked about the benefits of sustainable fishing and carrying the seal of approval. We also began partnering with companies that made large purchases of seafood.”

Sustainable tuna

One sector where a broad commitment to sustainability exists is the tuna industry: so far 26 companies, representing more than 75% of the global canned tuna market, are participating in the work of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF). Formed in 2009, ISSF is a global coalition of scientists, the tuna industry and WWF, that helps tuna fisheries meet the MSC standard. ISSF also promotes tuna conservation and works to reduce bycatch and illegal fishing.

75% of the global tuna market is participating in certification

StarKist Company is one of the ISSF founding members. “As America’s leading tuna brand, we are actively working to ensure that there is plenty of tuna today … and for generations to come,” the company says. StarKist participates in ISSF’s ProActive Vessel Register (PVR). ISSF created the PVR to enable vessel owners to identify themselves as active participants in meaningful tuna sustainability efforts. In 2015, StarKist bought 86% of its tuna from PVR-listed vessels, according to the company. A vessel listed on the PVR, however, is not seeking or securing endorsement by ISSF; it is committing to more transparent practices.

PVR also provides validated information to tuna buyers and interested stakeholders that reflect the steps each vessel is taking in a series of commitments to improve tuna fishing practices, says StarKist.

One of the newest ISSF members is Indonesian company Avila Prima Intra Makmur, which has a seafood canning division. According to a company statement, it is participating to help maintain the tuna population and promote sustainable fishing. “We believe that being ISSF-certified will increase our value to our buyers and customers, and they will understand the importance of tuna sustainability.”

While the ocean is still able to produce about 80m tonnes of seafood a year, even that has its limits. “The wild fish harvest has not gone up in the past four years; we’ve reached the limit of what we can fish from the ocean; some types are depleted,” says Aaron McNevin, director of WWFs aquaculture programme.

As the wild-caught fish harvest stalls, aquaculture production is ramping up and now represents about half of all seafood on the market. The problem, according to McNevin, is that some farmed fish’s food is produced from wild fish, and they consume more than they would in the ocean. “Fishing is the only food production system where we still hunt and gather,” he says. “When you flip that over and think about fish farms, you are raising carnivorous animals. You need about 4 kg of wild fish per 1 kg of farmed salmon and there is only a finite number of wild fish you can feed farmed fish.”

50% of seafood on the market is farmed

WWF has developed a certification systems for fish farms, and criteria include setting limits on the amount of natural resources that can be used, reducing the amount of wild fish used for food and limiting the amount of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, that are discharged back into natural bodies of water. Farmers are encouraged to participate because consumer demand for certification will give them a price premium in stores. But the goal is to eliminate different grades of seafood. “WWF would like to see everyone certified,” says McNevin. “We don’t think there should be a choice in supermarkets between certified and uncertified.”

Additional supply chain transparency will make it easier to certify products, McNevin says. “It’s the retail-consumer link: you have to know where the product was farmed,” he says. “Most stores don’t even know what farm produced the fish they bought. Basically, that starts everything. You need to know where it came from to check out practices. Once we get there, we can start making improvements.”

Future fertility

Maize – or corn as it is known in the US – is the engine of agriculture, according to Matt Carstens, vice president of crop nutrients for United Suppliers in Iowa, US. “We use it for feeding people, animals and for fuel.”

45% of the cost of farming corn is fertiliser


One of the staple crops of the US Midwest, corn has a lot riding on it. Members of United Suppliers, a wholesale organisation based in Iowa and owned by locally controlled agricultural retailers who do business throughout the central US and western Canada, realised they needed to be innovative to keep farming viable in the near and distant future.

Working with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), United Suppliers developed Sustain (Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture), a platform aimed at helping their locally controlled agricultural retailers improve sustainability practices.

By the end of 2015, more than 200 agricultural retail employees were authorised as Sustain representatives, and General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, Kellogg's, and Smithfield Foods were using or had committed to using the platform this year in their sustainable sourcing efforts.

The programme focuses on educating farmers and retailers about nutrient management, conservation and green fertiliser. Carstens, who oversees all of crop nutrients for United Suppliers, helps participants learn more efficient ways to apply nutrients and develop more sustainable products and practices. About 45% of the cost of farming corn is fertiliser, he says, and at least 50% of nitrogen can be lost in an average year, through leeching into the soil or volatilising into the air.

Carstens and others work with farmers on ways to minimise the loss of nitrogen, by using proven products to help stabilise it in the soil or spacing out nitrogen applications. “It can really change our environment and ability to feed 7 billion people,” says Carstens about nitrogen loss. “We need continuous improvement for the betterment of everyone.”

Sustain’s conservation aspect looks at water and soil conservation measures and using more sustainable ways to keep soil from eroding. Growers also learn about cover crops and bio-waste as fertiliser and have opportunities to share what practices work for them and what don’t. “We’re working on giving them the ability and expertise to do as many things as they can,” Carstens says.

Over a five-year period, Sustain farmers hope to cut nitrogen loss as much as possible. “As long as we have continuous improvement, society itself will be appreciative and agriculture will get recognition for doing the right thing,” Carstens says. “The cost is minimal compared to the potential loss.”

food production  sustainability  resources  agriculture  pollution  emission  water  Global markets 

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