How the SDGs can create a framework to fix a ‘broken’ agriculture sector

Businesses must collaborate to create global platforms that can fix a "completely broken" agriculture system in a way that improves land management and farming practices that can drag smallholders out of poverty.

That is the view of Mars’ global vice president of sustainability Kate Wylie, who claimed that business as usual approaches to agricultural practices had created a broken supply chain that relied too heavily on unsustainable farming practices from smallholders living in poverty.

“It is glaringly obvious that the agricultural supply chains in general are broken,” Wylie told edie. “It’s predominantly based on smallholders that are generally living in poverty. We’re at the thresholds of planetary boundaries.”

Wylie’s claims are backed by findings from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). A report released earlier this year claimed that production from agriculture – such as food, feedstock and biofuel – will have to grow by 50% by 2050 to support an expected population of more than nine billion.

Historically, bigger output increases have been recorded, notably in 1961 and 2011, but this has come at a heavy cost to the natural environment. Fortunately, technological advances and data management have increased the ability to map and trace supply chains. But Wylie is firmly of the opinion that issues can’t be tackled alone.

Mars recently unveiled a near-$1bn investment into a new sustainability action plan that uses science-based targets. The Sustainable in a Generation plan sets a 67% reduction in emissions across Mars’ value chain by 2050 – with roughly 60% of emissions located in the supply chain.

The science-based approach gives the company a platform to improve rural farming practices. But as Wylie points out, these changes will likely take a generation to come to fruition, heightening the need to bring others on board to create a “paradigm shift”.

“You can’t do this alone,” Wylie said. “These issues are bigger than one company. Supply chains are made up of multiple actors, so in order to do this you absolutely have to collaborate across all stages of the journey.

“Where there wasn’t a science, we held deep stakeholder consultation to work out solutions and targets. Internally there’s huge collaboration between functions and with suppliers, peers, governments because it’s a system and you need to transform that whole system. It is a skill that is fundamental.”

Sustainable Development Goals

Collaboration is turning into a buzzword; a concept that everyone understands, and everyone explicitly points towards as a key solution to changing how businesses approach their purpose, yet very few have successfully embraced it.

This is where the UN Sustainable Development Goals become important. The 17 goals cover human necessities – from tackling climate change to ending all forms poverty. Research suggests that many businesses are failing to follow through on commitments to the Global Goals, but Mars’ work to date has created an unofficial blueprint on how firms can marry goals to improve a corporate strategy.

Mars’ emission reduction pledge is accompanied by a goal to purchase 100% of several key raw materials through independent certification programmes, such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade International. In 2015, Mars Bars containing Fairtrade-certified cocoa went on sale in the UK for the first time.

More recently, Mars Food announced that basmati rice sold under the Uncle Ben’s and the Seeds of Change brands will be sourced from farmers working towards the Sustainable Rice Platform’s (SRP) standard for rice growing.

Both of these initiatives are tailored towards SDGs covering responsible consumption and life on land, but Mars has moved to add clean water and no poverty goals to the equation.

The new sustainability plan includes targets to eliminate water use in excess of “sustainable levels” in its value chain and improve the working lives of one million people that it sources from. A Nourishing Wellbeing plan will also target improvements to food safety and product innovation.

Specifically, Mars created The Farmer Income Lab to commission research and generate discussion to develop measurable frameworks and new business models to significantly reduce farmer poverty. In 2015, Mars and Danone announced their intentions to invest €50m each to increase the productivity of smallholder farmers to prioritise key crops including cocoa, sugar and palm oil across 40 projects worldwide.

The work with Danone is a prime example of collaboration unlocking new supply chain practices and Wylie believes that the SDGs will act as a communications lever will enable greater collaboration on a myriad of supply chain problems that have pushed us closer to planetary boundaries.

“The SDGs create a common language that governments, business and civil society can all talk about and are all framed in the same way,” Wylie said. “I think they’ve been a fantastic catalyst to drive collaboration and partnership.

“We can work on priority SDGs and everyone instantly understands what we’re talking about, and we can work out the common ground to get there. In the past, there’s so many different languages to communicate this, so it’s a fantastic framework to provided that catalytic response.”

Technological advances

And if the SDGs create the arena for businesses to collaborate and plan, then technology will be the weapon to accelerate action.

Mars is working with the Global Forest Watch (GFW), a WRI-convened partnership that utilises satellites and algorithms to monitor tree cover loss in an area of land the size of Mexico. The company is also working with The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) to create a free online tool for farmers to quantify and understand environmental impacts with the needs of businesses.

It’s a far cry from the days where Mars workers would travel to Cote d’Ivoire to count cocoa pod yields in the early 2000s. In fact, Mars recently incorporated blockchain technology in Indonesia to map supply purchases and ensure that farmers were receiving fair pay packets.

Looking ahead, Wylie expects technology to have a transformational impact on supply chain management, not just for environmental practices, but to monitor social considerations.

“Technology in general is going to completely transform the how of supply chains,” Wylie added. “I only see this progressing and driving a better way to unlock these supply chains, and for us to understand the context and provide the information that will help our suppliers drive the change that is required to start fixing the system.”

Matt Mace

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