Taking a landscape approach can lead to more robust and sustainable supply chains but there are no quick-fix answers. Ian Welsh reflects on the recent Innovation Forum sustainable landscapes and commodities conference
Engaging with producer communities has become a greater priority for buyer and brands – that is clear. And it’s a positive side effect of online conferences that it is easier to involve farmers in the conversations!
A stand-out comment from the event was when a farmer asked for acceptance that, for the most part, they are not the destroyers of environments. They work in the landscape and want to pass on a better environment not a worse one. The role of everyone else, of course, is to help enable this.
It was also clear that natural disasters, in particular heavy rain and flooding combined with periods of drought are an increasing concern. Take for example North America and the contrast of unusually high levels of rainfall and subsequent flooding in the southeastern United States contrasting with severe drought and wildfires in the west. Yes, there have always been contrasts, but these are continuing to accelerate.
Access to technology remains a problem for farmers. While new tech can of course enable real engagement for brands and buyers with producers, fairly obviously there needs to be access to that technology through devices and internet provision. Access is also enabled through training – the smartest and best technology won’t have the right impact if users can’t use it.
Lack of a fair and stable price also remains a major issue. Farm income in general is a concern, leading to a lack of resources for improvements as simple as being able to buy the best seeds. Market access goes hand in hand with price but remains a struggle for individual farmers. Cooperatives clearly can help – but come with their own challenges around inclusivity and potential conflicts of interest.
Cooperatives can also be useful for rolling out certification programmes, and it was striking across many of the conference sessions that there was a real enthusiasm for certification and the clear route to better incomes and improved practices that it can offer. Certification is not a solution in itself of course, but it can be very useful as part of a broader approach.
Success in a landscape approach requires collaboration, which means that everyone needs to be round the table. A genuine multi-stakeholder approach. It requires strong commitment from everyone involved. And the time to build the relationships necessary. It really has to be a long-term approach, and everyone involved must accept this for real progress to be made.
To enable this, there needs to be a realistic approach from the start regarding funding. Access to finance remains a major obstacle for farmers. Any change doesn’t come for free – and those that can afford to fund it should do so.
Multilateral and government funding is very important – there remains a need to help de-risk the private sector, at least initially. There was a lot of talk at the conference about the importance of good government and regulation – the old level playing field debate remains very much in play.
Learn more from failure?
Inevitably we hear more about success than failure. People obviously want to talk about when things have gone well, but there’s a great deal of truth in that we learn more from the failures. It’s perhaps contrary to human nature, but a useful approach for sure is to think about how to solve challenges on the way to success.
Scalability remains vitally important. There is still perhaps too much talk about pilots, which are important of course, but do struggle to scale. The old cliché about pilots never failing but also never scaling remains very much in play. Getting the incentives rights is a clear route to solving this – and must be designed from the start to reflect the long-term commitments that are required.
Finally, we do need to accept that there is a very tricky balance between trying to develop solutions that can be applied in a number of situations with the acceptance of the requirement for careful tailoring to develop landscape level solutions that are applicable and relevant in a particular place. Sadly, one size really doesn’t fit all.