Good cheese needs good companions: Partnering to build zero-deforestation dairy supply chains in the Colombian Amazon

The department of Caquetá is part of the Amazon River basin and a strategic ecosystem for Colombia and the globe. Historically, it has been the region most affected by deforestation in the country due to the advancing of the agricultural frontier and the widespread presence of illicit crops. The region is also of crucial importance in the current peace process but suffers from the continued presence of illegal armed groups and the lack of state control. Its main products are coffee, cocoa, extensive cattle ranching, and rubber.

Last year Solidaridad, together with Patrimonio Natural, Fundación Natura, and the Caquetá Cattle Ranchers Committee (CDGC), started the first pilot project to track, trace and monitor small and medium-size producers in Caquetá dairy supply chains.  

The pilot set key performance indicators in the area of sustainability, quality, and productivity at the farm level, and will additionally track deforestation and forest conservation at the farm level. This will gather learnings around the barriers and opportunities for the supply chain to produce milk according to zero-deforestation criteria.

Two market players ensured that the pilot covers the entire supply chain, from farm to fork. One is “Lacteos La Arboleda”, a local processor, which makes cheese and dairy products with milk from the Amazon region, with geographical indication. The second, is Grupo Takami, a leading chain of restaurants in Colombia, that sources from La Arboleda 

Collecting data with advanced digital apps and satellites

The pilot combined data from farm polygons with aerial photograph, and satellite monitoring. Farm data monitoring was carried out using the Extension Solution mobile application, a digital (offline) tool developed by Solidaridad. Field officers collected and digitized information on site, to verify the performance level of farms against good farming practices, quality and sustainability criteria. Extension Solution then delivers a timely and quick assessment and an online work plan to the farmer and its field officer via WhatsApp and/or email. The livestock producer association, the dairy processor, and the end buyer can digitally monitor progress through a tailored dashboard that consolidates the information at landscape, cluster, and farm level.

Full traceability comes at a cost, but who will bear it?

As the project focused on the farm, it didn’t take into account individual animal traceability.  This is, however, an essential element to achieve full traceability across the supply chain.  It is a common practice for bovine livestock to be born on one farm and be sold to another when reaching a certain age. This means that, without individual tracking of the animals between farms, it is challenging to determine the origin of the cattle on the farm.

This can be considered a structural barrier, as Colombia does not have the means or the technologies to implement individual traceability at a reasonable cost. Although there are electronic devices that can be placed on animals to track their location from birth to slaughter, installation, reinstallation due to loss or fall, and handling to generate information, represent an additional cost for the producer that, currently, is not being recognized in the purchase price of raw milk. This raises the question as to which supply chain stakeholders should bear the costs of reaching full traceability and in what proportion. 

Halfway on the journey, but with promising prospects for improvement

The pilot provided inputs from 30 farms that manage 1,800 hectares and will help better craft strategies to implement and monitor zero-deforestation production across dairy supply chains. The response rate from participating farms is promising. The average compliance rate with sustainability and quality criteria reached 48%. The potential to increase production by adopting the full set of criteria and recommendations for sustainable and zero-deforestation livestock production is fivefold.

Read more about our work in Livestock.