- What are the key challenges for the sugarcane supply chain right now?
Many of the sustainability challenges in sugarcane are no different to any other tropical agricultural commodity. Issues such as legislative compliance, land ownership, labour rights and ecological protection are all country specific, not crop specific, and the severity and nature of the issues depend on the local governance, ecosystem and socioeconomic context.
One of the challenges that possibly plays out more specifically in sugarcane is that relating to seasonal labour; in particular regarding occupational health, or where transient labourers’ rights are not properly respected in local law.
- Are there some unique aspects of the sugar supply chain that create barriers to sustainability?
For buyers, the main challenge with supply chain assurance is a lack of product segregation, and therefore traceability to a specific farm. Both sugar and ethanol usually require two large-scale industrial processes before they enter a company’s supply chain (milling and refining for sugar). This means that at best a buyer can realistically only trace sugar to a farming area, not to a specific farm or group of farms. This in turn means that for any buyer the scale of the challenge is vastly greater than for those commodities that can be segregated. For any one buyer to take on that kind of accountability is daunting, which is the very reason we provide a platform for pre-competitive collaboration.
- What does effective collaboration look like?
The only long term solution to sustainable sourcing is through collective, scalable, replicable approaches. Producers need clarity on market access requirements (the fewer variations and the simpler the ask, the more will commit). Whilst it’s great that many of the most advanced sustainable sourcing strategies take personal ownership – companies move faster doing their own thing – we are only going to truly create sustainable supply when markets and buyers see the challenge through the same frame of reference – a common set of rules, mutually supportive improvement plans, and common audits.
The simplest form of collaboration we promote is for a buyer to back the global standard: either Bonsucro, or a scheme benchmarked to Bonsucro. This backs the collaborative approach and sends a unified market signal. The more advanced forms of collaboration see collections of buyers backing a single origin implementation plan – developed with the local industry, with a common procurement commitment, and sometimes funds to support the change effort.
- What are the routes to sustainability for sugar, and how can companies access these effectively?
Many producers and industrial suppliers have started a journey towards sustainable production in some form. There is a long way to go, but the signals we are receiving from many producer organisations are very promising.
We are just about to launch a technology platform that will allow buyers to trace their supply and develop a robust sourcing strategy. A number of our trader members can also offer this service. For those that want an immediate and credible claim, we also provide a “credits” mechanism to show commitment and support those that have already made the effort to get certified.
- What do you want to hear from companies at the upcoming sustainable sugarcane conference in London? What should they be doing more of?
Sugarcane has huge potential to contribute to the challenges of the 21st century: feeding a growing population as well as providing renewable energy, biomaterials, decent work in emerging economies, and a whole lot more. Every one of us needs professional, successful, responsible agriculture and industry. The leading brands have done a huge amount to track their supply, design responsible sourcing strategies and engage their procurement.
What we want to hear from companies joining the conference is what’s working and what they need help with in order to take the next step. In particular we are looking for more buyers to commit to joining us on a journey. This is about expanding a network of professionals, and collectively improving the industry both further and faster than each of us can on our own.
Simon Usher is CEO of Bonsucro. Join Bonsucro and other sugar supply chain experts on 1st-2nd December in London at the “Sustainable sugarcane: how companies can deliver” conference. Click here for full details and how to register.