Opinion – Hamish Taylor, Sustainability Advisor

31st March 2022

As we witness the overwhelming effects of climate change at an ever-increasing pace, is there time and space for relationship building?

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Hamish Taylor, Sustainability Advisor for Symrise

There must be. Without it, any attempt at establishing sustainable agriculture supply chains will not see deep, lasting impact. This year SAI Platform celebrates its 20th anniversary with the concept People Powered Agriculture. To me, this is an invitation for us all, as members, to take the time to really tune into our personal motivations for driving the transition to sustainable agriculture. But importantly, it is also an opportunity to better understand the motivations of others. It is impossible to understand those motivations unless we are willing to take the time to listen and build meaningful relationships with the people along every step of our supply chains.

Respect is the key driver of relationship building, engendering mutual trust is the only way to inspire behaviour change. This is true of partners in a project or in the individual engagement with farmers. When people realise that you share inspiration and passion, and you take the time to listen and understand their motivations, commitment is secured. It is at this point, that you can really work together towards common goals.

At Symrise, we have the pleasure of partnering with bergamot farmers in Calabria. This region, which is tucked into the southernmost tip of Italy’s boot, is where 90% of the world’s bergamot is grown. The sun baked expanse of craggy mountains and the cool sea breeze are perfect conditions for growing Citrus bergamia, a popular scent in perfumery and an aromatic ingredient in food.

With our Calabrian partner CAPUA, we established “The Happy Bergamot Project”. This initiative looked at the risks associated with bergamot production in the region and the opportunities to improve sustainability. The successful partnership went on to embrace the University of Calabria, hundreds of farmers in the region, CAPUA’s agronomy team, UEBT in an advisory capacity, and SAI Platform’s Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) Tool as our accompanying guide.

Gianfranco Capua of CAPUA in a garden in Calabria, Italy

Most farmers have an innate passion for working with the soil, tending to their trees, and harvesting the fruits of their labour. So, it is no surprise that when we ask farmers to go through a process of assessing and verifying the sustainability of their farm, the request is often met with concern. The paper-trail associated with sustainability measuring and verification can be substantial and is often overwhelming for farmers who work predominantly with the land.

Other common concerns that we have encountered among farmers are the possible release of sensitive information, the high costs attached to verification, and a fear of what non-compliance might mean. It is important to recognise and acknowledge these concerns. By proactively providing reassurance, we show respect for the farmer’s perspective and can build a strong foundation upon which to foster a meaningful relationship.

Symrise found excellent partners in CAPUA, an organisation that also understands this ethos. Around the dinner table, Gianfranco Capua said something that stuck with me, “Hamish, you must remember that resilience starts with putting money in farmers’ pockets.” He recognised that to secure lasting sustainability in the region, we needed to show farmers that the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices could make their farming efforts more profitable, without harming the environment. We knew in advance that the farms implementing Good Agricultural Practices experienced yields as much as 27% higher per hectare than those that did not, so communicating this effectively became critical.

It is essential from the outset to be clear with all stakeholders about the direction of travel, even if there are uncertainties about the route or time needed to get there. Speaking the same language is key and this goes beyond simple translation – adopting the local vocabulary is vital too, for example, bergamot farmers talk about their operations as “gardens”, not fields or farms. 

We all have a vested interest in the success of farmers. This is always front of mind for me when I visit a farm. To show my respect for their time, I like to bring a small gift – usually Scottish shortbread, a delicacy from my homeland. On one memorable occasion that small, unexpected gift made a significant impression on an Italian farmer. Months later I was at an event, about 30km away, and another bergamot farmer came forward to tell me that she had heard the story of the shortbread. “Word of mouth” is a powerful weapon in the battle to drive sustainable agriculture from theory to practice.

Fundamentally, kindness matters: we need to work with people and build meaningful relationships if we want to see lasting impact. It’s about the language we use and the way we engage, listen, and listen again. Once we view farmers as partners on the journey to sustainability rather than simply as suppliers, we can work towards a vision that is beneficial for all. These are lessons learnt through our own experience, we would describe them as “good practices” and certainly not “best practices”. We are all still learning.

The Happy Bergamot Project was led by Hamish Taylor on behalf of Symrise and Gianfranco Capua and Laurent Bert on behalf of CAPUA. Watch this video for more information.