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How to ensure responsible practices along agricultural supply chains?

Can we ensure that the food sold in our supermarkets is delivered through a sustainable supply chain? This is not an easy question to answer, but consumers who want to be responsible face it on a daily basis. Certification schemes are one way of dealing with this issue. Fairtrade, “direct links”, and organic labels can be found on a variety of products like coffee, tea, bananas, cacao and cotton. But is it actually an effective way to ensure responsible practices along agricultural supply chains?

SIANI and Fairtrade International gathered actors representing private sector, government and farmer and indigenous groups at the Global Landscapes Forum 2015 to hear different views about sustainable supply chain management. The discussion was moderated by Torsten Krause from Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS.

Many links in the chain

When discussing agricultural supply chains and certification schemes, it is not unusual that attention is drawn to the production side. Carlos E Vargas, representative from Coopetrabasur, a banana producer organization in Costa Rica says: “Our company has been Fairtrade certified for 16 years, but there is only so much we can do ourselves. We are not isolated form the rest of the chain.” Producer companies and their influence on other actors in the chain are important, but there is so much more that has to be done to create sustainable supply chains. He argues that retailers, like supermarkets and their middlemen should be demanded to hold sustainable practices as well.

Juan Carlos Ocampo, representative for indigenous communities Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has hands-on experience with Fairtrade certification. He points out that “Current certification systems have two dimensions – market and environment – but we in our farming community have many more values that need to be taken into account”.

He further says that “influencing certification process through better tenure and land rights as well as by strengthening local organizations can trigger a bigger change. During the certification process we also strive to inject standards that are important to us. This includes spiritual values and a holistic approach to environment that we have. For example, if we can impact the certification process with our values we can also, in the long term perspective, impact national forestry regulations.”

Is certification the answer?

So is certification the only way to ensure a more sustainable supply chain? Bernard Giraud, senior Sustainability Advisor at Danone and co-creator of the Livelihoods Venture Fund, says that certification is not a panacea: “Certification can be an efficient method for creating sustainable supply chains but has also proven to exclude smallholder farmers, who have smaller financial resources, benefiting larger producers”.

Getting your products certified does not only depend on whether you farm organically or have equal opportunities for your employees; it is also a question of financial capabilities. Certification requires paying the fees to certifiers and evaluators. And small scale farmers – who often own less than 1 hectare of land – are not usually able to pay for a certification on a regular basis. This means that even if their products are produced in an organic way it will not necessarily be organically certified. For Juan Carlos Ocampo this is a well-known challenge. He refers to the farming community he comes from, saying that in his community farmers only use organic farming techniques, but are not certified.

So, ensuring sustainable supply chains of agricultural commodities is challenging, and certification is only part of the solution.

What out-of-the-box solutions could complement certification?

Mia Crawford, Deputy Director at the Swedish Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation as well as one of Sweden’s negotiators at COP21, stresses the importance and the advantages of the landscape approach thinking: “Policies on forestry, water, and agriculture are complementary and can be effective tools for driving sustainability. Certification is voluntary and first and foremost communicates with consumers. Choosing a certified product in a supermarket sends a signal to farmers, producers and retailers that certain standards are important for a consumer. However, it does not necessarily create a new sustainability baseline for a product. Policies and national legislation can, on the other hand, influence whole business sectors and push them in a more sustainable direction.”

Juan Carlos Ocampo concludes by saying that the farming communities must decide for themselves how they want to contribute to the creation of sustainable supply-chains, where certification schemes is one way to go.

One can work for sustainable practices along the supply chain in different ways – certification, corporate policies and national legislation are a few of them. It has also been suggested that a shift towards a more supply driven economy might be an eye-opener. If it had been up to the farmers and their communities to decide what they want to grow and how to do it, be it based on economic, cultural or environmentally driven factors, new markets would have most probably popped up, while others would have shut down.

Creating sustainable supply chains is a complex process and it often includes a number of national and international actors who often do not have a common strategy on how to work together on this issue. Better communication between these actors is a big step on the way to realize the establishment of sustainable practices along the whole chain. Meanwhile, resposible consumers might have to wait a bit longer before it becomes easy to identify which products are produced in a truly sustainable manner and which are not.

This article is based on the dialogue “How to ensure responsible practices along agricultural supply chains? A multi-stakeholder dialogue” hosted by SIANI and Fairtrade International at the Global Landscape Forum 2015 in Paris on December 6.

Read more about the event here.

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