Rio+20 crowd to learn from practical sustainable development work for farmers and environment

The UN Summit on Sustainable Development brings tens of thousands of people together to discuss the future we want, but at the same time concrete commitments and investments from developed governments to invest in this seems to be far away. Sustainable development doesn’t have to cost money, or rely on subsidies however. The Solidaridad Network is showing that innovation, farmer engagement and scaling up of existing best practice can provide lasting and self-propelling improvements in farmers livelihoods, while improving the conditions of workers and the surrounding environment.

Soybean, palm oil, cotton, sugarcane and livestock production occupy more than two-thirds of the agricultural land in the world. They are expanding, with serious consequences for the use of water, deforestation and local community livelihoods. But the world needs to produce much more food, feed, fibre and fuel for the future. Although population growth is slowing down, global population will increase from seven to nine and a half billion people in 2050, but on average all these people will have three times as much to spend. This is quadrupling the global footprint. Agricultural supply chains, providing the vast majority of the goods we consume, must therefore be sustainable and more efficient. The increasing global demand for food, feed and fuel presents a serious dilemma for the world. Expansion of agricultural area to meet the need for food threatens the last remaining biodiversity and carbon rich natural landscapes and threatens the livelihoods of local communities, many of them small family farmers. Society, led by the farmers and globally operating companies in the supply chain, and supported by governments will therefore need to invest heavily in smart and sustainable use of agricultural land. We need to produce more with less. It is possible.

Solidaridad has improved the farming systems of over half a million farmers

By building ‘coalitions of the willing’ along supply chains, Solidaridad has directly or indirectly improved the farming practices, organization and income of over half a million farmers in the past years. Most of these are coffee growers on family farms, but Solidaridad has also achieved significant results in the tea, cocoa, soy bean, sugar cane and cotton sectors. It was and is a joint investment of the farmers themselves, traders, processors and leading brands such as Mars, Unilever, H&M and Shell.

In the last three years, for example, we have set up a responsible soy programme with family farmers in one of the driest and underdeveloped states in India. Using the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) as a framework for social, economic, environmental and institutional best practice, Solidaridad has worked with farmers’ organizations and local partners to set up a sustainable development programme that is now implemented in 17 districts across the state.
The practices were promoted by the programme through a network of trainers and lead farmers at village level to raise yields 20 to 50 percent and reduce seed- and chemical costs. This enables the households to feed their families throughout the lean season and pay fair salaries to their seasonal workers. Seed production programmes and pier-to-pier training programmes provide skilled jobs. Abolishment of the use of obsolete chemicals, implementation of integrated pest management and the utilization of protective equipment reduce environmental and health impacts and reduces costs of crop protection.

Re-establishing vegetation along rivers improves water quality and on-farm biological diversity – fodder, fruits and building materials derived from these riverbank forests provide compensation for cropland lost. By organizing themselves in Producer Companies, the farmers can administer costs and revenues, improve agronomic and business practices, negotiate better deals with buyers and create economies of scale when buying farm inputs. Funding for the transition is provided by Public Private Partnerships grants and Round Table of Responsible Soy (RTRS) member companies such as Ben&Jerry’s and FrieslandCampina. Although eventually most of the farmers obtained RTRS certification, the standard is a means to an end, and the value of the programme is in the improved production and management practices, much more than in a premium for the certificate, which may or may not materialize in the global commodity market.

The latest Public Private Partnership grant, called the Farmer Support Programme – intends to scale up the work Solidaridad is doing in conjunction with the roundtables on palm oil, soybeans, sugarcane, cotton and livestock.  Its €70 million, new four-year initiative (2012-2015) aims to support 800,000 households smallholders and improve the environmental values of an area of at least 700,000 hectares.

More action is necessary

The partnerships linking farmers to markets, facilitated by Solidaridad, demonstrate how a commitment to the future we want translates into practical, scalable results with clear economic, social and environmental benefits. If more companies, NGOs and institutions take a proactive approach to test sustainable development concepts and scale up those that work, the ambitions set at Rio+20 may well be within reach, regardless of a global declaration.