CONO helps to improve agricultural practices in India

The first global certification of Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) was recently awarded to farmers in India. This comes after an undertaking by The Dutch Cheesemakers, CONO, one of the frontrunner companies to invest in the sustainability of soy producers in the country. The company is one of five large producers supporting Solidaridad’s global soy programme. Catharinus Wierda, Sustainability Manager of Dutch Cheesemakers, CONO, speaks to us about supporting sustainable practices and the soy certification achievement in India.

Solidaridad: The reason for your trip to India was partly aimed at getting first-hand insight into development programmes on the ground about sustainable soy production and the progress thereof. What is your impression?

Wierda: I believe that the Soy Producer Support Initiative (SOYPSI is a four year programme 2009-2012) and certification on responsible soy in India actually helps with economic and sustainable development. An important observation is that the soybean crop provides extra income to farmers and do not compete with other food crops and contributes to additional development. This means in practice we have seen that a relatively simple farmers program led by several non-governmental organisations in a short time led to improvements formany soybean farmers. The programme is also funded by other partners. It is efficient with great impact, due to the cooperation of several partners in funding and implementation. I think withmore financial effort in the programme, in comparison with a similar programme in South America, we can do more with the same money.

Solidaridad: In light of your funding role and support by Solidaridad, a global network organization for sustainable production and fair-trade, and its’ implementing partners’ to help smallholders in India, how would you describe the state of soy production in the country?

Wierda: Soy has only recently been introduced as a cash crop to these farmers. Therefore due to lack of knowledge and less automation, there are problems around production and sustainability. I think with simple measures they can improve a lot and that is achievable. This will among others led to social, environmental and economic sustainability.

Solidaridad: What did the farmers on the ground tell you about their production experience towards RTRS certification?

Wierda: The farmers explained how they have learned about better agricultural practices. They demonstrated knowledge of new automated sowing methods and indicated that many more farmers are participating in the programmes. The improvements in revenue and cultivation have also led to greater social and environmental sustainability. All of these achievements come on the back of RTRS certification.

Solidaridad: Is CONO sourcing soy from India or planning to do so in the near future – as part of the Netherlands intended sourcing of about 2 million tons of certified RTRS soy by 2015?

Wierda: There is definitely an intention to do so, andadditional advantage is that soy from India is free of genetically modified organisms (GMO). However, currently our 500 dairy farmers buy feed from more than 10 food suppliers. Therefore, we want to explore the possibilities with food suppliers to know, and find away to implement it for our farmers. We also need to look at the financial implications and study the trade barriers? Moreover, we need to know what is needed to provide the whole chain of this GMO-free soy.

Solidaridad: Some mainstream buyers argue the RTRS business model is not adequately incentive-driven – farmers want to be paid for certification, while market players see certification as a ‘licence to operate’. What is CONO’s experience on the advantages of RTRS certification?

Wierda: It's not only 'license to operate' for market players, but also 'license to produce' for farmers and a ‘licence to sell’ for our dairy products. Some customers of (Dutch) Beemster cheese, CONO’s high quality cheese brand, already request RTRS certificates. To be certified by RTRS by a development programme like SOYPSI, strengthened our market position.

Solidaridad: Solidaridad accompanied you company on the certification trip –how do you cooperate as partners to ensure increased sustainable production of RTRS soy?

Wierda: As a large international network, Solidaridad brings much needed knowledge and support to programmes. As a partner in the SOYPSI program, the positive communication of Solidaridad about sustainability has had a positive effect on our relations in the market place and society. Solidaridad support farmers in farming techniques that have less negative impact on people and the environment and lead to better products and higher yields. As, CONO, we are pleased to be part of these initiatives, which also aim to improve capacity and strengthen producer organisations.

SolidaridadWhat other projects and programmes did you visit?

Wierda: We visited a multinational for soy factory, a crushing plant and together with an Indian, non-governmental organisation, Pradan, went to a development programme for dairy farmers.

Solidaridad: Is there anything you learned from farmers in India (through your interactions), which you can share with us?

Wierda: One thing is clear, the soy producer support program in India is similar to the approach to our Dutch farmers, and there is continuous improvement and results. It leads to a happy planet and happy farmers.