Profitable small-scale farming is key for building sustainable global food systems

Interview with Don Seville, Executive Director, Sustainable Food Laboratory

For over 10 years The Sustainable Food Laboratory (SFL) has brought together companies, NGOs, and stakeholders to accelerate the development and adoption of more sustainable agricultural practices within the mainstream food system. Don is leading the Sustainable Livelihoods work within the lab, which is developing partnerships between companies and NGOs to pilot trading models that connect small scale producers to modern markets. 

1. In your opinion, what are the most difficult challenges in creating more sustainable food supply chains? What does sustainability look like for SFL?

There are many challenges regarding trying to get more sustainable food systems in place, but I think one of the biggest ones is that farmers have been separated from the end customers, and working and selling through commodity markets which pushed toward the lowest cost of production needed to generate whatever is the necessary quality or other specifications for that market. So I think the biggest challenge for sustainability is how to rebuild that linkage between farmers and their buyers and customers, and to really figure out how farmers can get a sufficient return on investments, together with the motivation and resources needed to change practices to become more sustainable.

So on the US commercial agriculture side, the big challenge is how to be able to make long term investments, so you can build soils, protect habitats etc. In developing countries with smallholders there’s a whole series of challenges regarding how to support farmers to work towards a decent income from modest scale farms, how to reduce deforestation, rebuild soils, introduce agroforestry and so on. But at the end of the day it’s about this mix of helping create trading relationships that support farmers with sufficient return to re-invest, and then together create programs that support investments that improve soil building, reduce emissions, and protect forests.

2. Moving global food supply chains into sustainable practices, by converging all stakeholders from beginning to end, seems like an impossible endeavour. Why do you think it is important to connect all the stakeholders? How SFL is doing that? 

In our experience I think the biggest challenge when it comes to transforming systems at scale, is that often we still need to have direct relationships and direct conversations to really understand what the world is like from each other’s perspective, and to feel that commitment to find solutions that benefit everyone, not just our place in the supply chain. So for us, often we find it’s really important, when creating a supply chain program, to be able to have the end buyer, the supplier, the farmers, the NGO helpers, all meeting together, to really discuss their visions together and form shared commitments together.

It’s a real challenge for scale-up because that investment in relationships is expensive and time-consuming, but it’s what allows you to take risks and our hope is that if we’re able to do that at even a small scale within larger companies, or choosing a few sectors where you’re building cross-industry collaborations, we can figure out the kinds of strategies that make economic sense for others to follow, without having to do all of that intensive relationship building. But at the moment most of the sustainability work that really requires co-investing and sharing costs and risks together really benefits from the direct relationships as you can only try to tackle something together, meeting in person.

 3. What does a successful supply chain collaboration look like? Can you give us examples of how food corporations are supporting their farmer supplier network? What is being done in postharvest management?

 I think all of the projects we were involved in have elements of success and elements of hitting the limitations of the larger economic system or the larger commodity system. So for instance, the work we have done in Guatemala with InspiraFarms is a great example of linking a buyer in the U.S., such as Target, (as they have retail of fresh and frozen produce), and joining them in a partnership to food processors in Guatemala, who can directly source from small-scale providers. What was great about that project was that we had a buyer who is interested organic production, and we had identified the need for the Guatemalan small-scale producers to have a value-added crop that would get them out of simply trying to compete against the large-scale conventional produce industry.

What that partnership brought together was farmers who were interested in trying organics, the suppliers in Guatemala such as Fair Fruit and Alimentos Sumar, who had the processing capacity, and were interested to see if they could make a business out of it, with an end buyer who could bring it to market, if it hit sufficient scale. InspiraFarms had the critical role of being a technical organizer of the farmers and helping overcome the challenges of organic production, but also the small scale distributed storage facilities required to work with high-quality vegetables.

It is a slow process because this is changing smallholder production culture, which could take a few years, but we’re encouraged with results so far. Now the task is to see whether we can do a sufficient scale of production to make it worth bringing to market with a large-scale retailer like Target.

 4. SFL is supporting companies to identify solutions to food loss and waste in their supply chains. What are the key actions and investments food companies can perform to reduce food losses in smallholder supply chains?

This is something we have looked at, and what we have learned, for instance, from horticultural vegetables and fruits coming from East Africa, or the challenges within the coffee and cocoa supply chain, is that food loss is an issue that you can`t separate from the general challenges of trying to improve quality, packaging, and transportation. In other words, the food loss race is happening because either the farmers aren’t finding a market for certain grades or they don’t have access to reliable cold storage or they’re not following good packing practices. For many of these crops actually it’s pre-harvest losses which are the worst, which is often about pests and disease management.

So I think our main lesson is that we appreciate the energy coming from DG community, to focus on food loss and waste as a specific issue, but for smallholders, it’s just one of the challenges that they face and it needs to be addressed in a farming production system approach.

5. How can post-harvest management practices and technologies support the climate change resilience of smallholder supply chains?

The main thing is to try to figure out what’s happening with the smallholders and where the food loss is occurring. When you begin to do that, the most important thing is to look at what are the highest priorities from the smallholder perspective, as well as the company perspective. It may be food loss, it may be productivity, it may be storage and transportation, but the food loss and waste can be a great way to get you in the door to find what are the biggest problems facing the farmer in terms of their yields income and access to markets. For certain kinds of products, particularly horticultural, storage, packing and transport are often key areas that need addressing

6. SFL is promoting the use of information and data for facilitating sustainable and smart farming. How do you think the use of data can be scaled for generating collaborative, smart and sustainable food supply chains?

 Right now our question is how do we leverage information about the farming system or farmer livelihoods in a way that helps people make better choices. We have worked in two domains, one is using the cool farm tool to collect information about the climate impact of different farming practices, and the second is undertaking fairly extensive and expensive household surveys to try to understand what’s happening for incomes and livelihoods for smallholder farmers.

In both cases, we’re trying to use that information to help our suppliers and farmers to be able to provide scenarios on practice changes and what are the trade policy changes that would make the biggest difference, whether it’s reducing greenhouse gases, or improving incomes. So for us now it’s less about big data, but how do we collect modest data and use that to help people understand what are the practice changes that matter relative to the results we’re trying to achieve.

7. What plans does SFL have for the future? What new initiatives are foreseen?

The SFL is a membership organization of companies and NGOs who want to figure out how to put sustainability into practice. Our focus is on the power of companies to promote sustainability, both in larger-scale commercial agriculture, but also in smallholder agriculture through sourcing practices that can link farmers. Often this is in combination with programs that can help farmers make investments, either to improve environmental outcomes or improve livelihoods.

We do see a couple of real cross-cutting challenges that we’ve been trying to orient our work towards, and this is because there are companies who see this as the next frontier. One is how do we put some of the longer-term environmental challenges on the agenda when it comes to developing effective sustainable sourcing practices. A good example is soil building, so we know in the Corn Belt of the US, for example, we can reduce the number of inputs needed within 2 or 3 years for the introduction of small crops or rotations of legumes or small grains. We look to develop partnerships and supply chain programs so that the long-term investments are the things that make most economic sense.

Another area that we’ve really focused on is the challenge of farmer livelihoods in commodity systems, which tend to have long periods of oversupply. We look at how we can have better returns for farmers and commodities, like dairy, cocoa, and coffee, while still having efficient supply chains. So we’re doing a lot of pilots with farmers in vanilla, we’re working with full sector approaches. We think there’s still a lot of innovation needed to have cost-effective approaches for companies to work with smallholder farmers, so that the farmers get a sufficient return on investment, and that they can continue to improve their farms and have access to health care, education, etc.

So there is a great amount of work and learning to do in those domains, and of course, we extend an invitation to anybody who would like to work with the Food Lab or be part of those communities of practice.

We’re always trying to work where the private sector actors see opportunities to make a change. Within that, we have focused on a few specific initiatives. Firstly, in a larger scale row crop agriculture, where there is the challenge of building in much more complex rotations, which can radically improve the sustainability of the farming systems. That is our Small Grains Initiative in the Midwest, and we feel that one of the key levers is shifting from crop optimization to sustainable long-term rotations.

Another initiative we’ve really been working on is the question of how can we apply the concept of a living wage for employees, which is a daily wage sufficient to support someone to have a decent standard of living. Can we apply that concept to smallholder farmers? This is called the Living Movement and we have been facilitating practice about how this could work in a real-world way in commercial supply chains, and what are the challenges and opportunities there. So those are the most recent initiatives that we’re really beginning to build up for the future.