From farm to fork

Sustainable practices boost the agri value chain

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As smoke from jungle fires darkens the Brazilian mega-city of São Paulo, bringing into question the desirability of large-scale industrial agriculture and the nature of its relationship with the natural ecosystems that support life on this planet, the importance of sustainable agriculture comes to the fore as never before.

The question is how to feed billions of human beings without destroying the basis of life itself. Some answers as to the role of the fresh produce sector were suggested at a panel discussion on sustainable agriculture at the PMA Fresh Connections conference, which took place at the Century City Conference Centre on 30-31 July.

Sustainable supply chains

The concept of “sustainability” has to be applied throughout fresh produce value chain as it affects growers, suppliers, and consumers alike.

“Sustainability in the value chain is to look after every step, from farm to fork. It is to ensure that the value chain is not only as efficient as possible environmentally, but that it also has a positive social impact on the community surrounding the operations by achieving a financial benefit for all involved,” says Siglinda Lösch, Group Sustainability Manager at Food Lover’s Market, who spoke at the event.

Fortunately, technology has progressed to the point that sustainable supply chain development has become a practical possibility.

“There are many technological developments in the supply chain, such as robotics and achieving more results from data mining which will develop into the artificial intelligence needed to improve sustainability within supply chains. This will advance the process to become more streamlined, quicker and more efficient by consistently delivering the correct product in the supply chain,” says Lösch.

What approach a company adopts towards sustainability will however depend on its own particular circumstances.

“Finding the right balance is always the challenge. There is also no specific way to promote sustainable outcomes - the right time and place is key to promoting and achieving success,” says Lösch.

Sustainable farming adaptations

Retailers cannot sell sustainable products unless they are grown sustainably, so it is just as well that South African agriculture is embracing more sustainable farming practices such as Conservation Agriculture.

“Over the past 15 years, Conservation Agriculture (CA) has been adopted by sugar and grain farmers in KwaZulu-Natal, winter grain farmers in the Western Cape and summer grain farmers in the Free State and North West provinces. The KwaZulu-Natal No-Till Club has been conducting research since 1997 and ascribes the success of CA to favourable rainfall and high clay-content soils. Grain SA has a dedicated programme on CA for smallholder grain farmers. In the Western Cape grain production areas, the adoption of conservation agriculture has increased from 5% in 2000 to 60% in 2010,” says Tatjana von Bormann, Programme and Innovation Lead at WWF South Africa, who also spoke at PMA Fresh Connections.

“However, it must be noted that CA is not always recognised as based on agro-ecological principles and is sometimes seen as a Trojan Horse for agri-businesses to continue to push products such as ‘improved’ seeds, pesticides, and so on.”

Another important farming adaptation is that of sustainable intensification.

“This means growing more on the land currently under production. Sustainable intensification was identified in the IPCC’s 2018 report as a critical means of increasing the efficiency of inputs and enhancing health and food security. This requires sophisticated farm management and the use of precision-farming tools, such as GPS fertiliser dispersion, advanced irrigation systems and environmentally optimised crop rotations. These methods can increase yield and reduce the over-stressing of resources. Sustainable intensification can prevent the depletion of groundwater and the destruction of fertile lands through the over-use of fertiliser. Given the sophisticated technological requirements these practices are largely confined to large commercial farms,” says Van Bormann.

No margin for error

If nothing else, rising input costs will be an important driver of more sustainable practices in future.

“Improved practices help to address both the unpredictable changes in the weather conditions as a result of climate change and rising input costs. Farmers are having to seek new ways of growing as a result of ecosystem and resource degradation, particularly soil and freshwater, but cost increasing are also pushing farmers to adopt more agroecological practices,” says Van Bormann.

“A recently published paper in the US provides evidence that America’s agricultural landscape is now almost 50 times more toxic to bees, and other insects, than it was 25 years ago, as a result of pesticides. The disappearance of pollinators is already pushing informed farmers towards less toxic input use. We’ve been able to work outside of the natural system because there was sufficient redundancy in the system to allow an extractive approach to resources. That space for mistakes is gone.”

The consumer’s choice

One sound commercial reason to embrace sustainability is that consumers increasingly prefer sustainably produced products.

“WWF’s Conservation Champions, in the Cape Winelands, has already demonstrated the powerful additional tourism attraction of intact fynbos on farms. (One farmer says that when he takes people to see the vineyards they marvel only at the sunbirds and proteas.) There is evidence of multiple improvements in ecosystem function, disease management and fire control through better practices. For the consumer there is also the advantage of eating more nutritious food as a result of better soil health and reduced chemical use,” says Van Bohrmann.

Collaboration required

A large-scale shift towards sustainable practices to occur would have to be supported by government and coordinated planning is needed across different government departments.

“In addition to policy certainty so that farmers feel free to invest in their operations, we need integrated planning for our landscapes, linked to a mix of policies that address barriers and opportunities for the land sector. This means balancing critical biodiversity and water reserves with essential agricultural land, prioritising the roll-out of new technologies and improving access to agriculture services and access to market for diverse and nutritionally rich crops. This cannot be addressed through a single policy, but rather requires a mix of activities that fall under the remit of different government agencies. It’s not an easy tasks because if there is really is to be a sustainable virtuous cycle then implicit in all these actions is the need to create youth employment, uplift women, improve livelihoods and support smallholder farmers and small businesses,” concludes Van Bormann.

For more information, visit PMA’s social media platforms.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/PMA_Africa #FreshConnections

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PMASouthernAfrica

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