“SAI Platform is thriving at 20, but there is still a long way to go”
As awareness and understanding of the wider implications of sustainability in the food and drink industry grow, Jan Kees Vis, previously Global Director Sustainable Sourcing Development at Unilever, looks back over SAI Platform’s 20 years of transforming agriculture and to the future, which is sure to be equally challenging if not more so.
There was a time when the CEOs of Unilever, Danone and Nestlé would meet once a year to discuss how their industry was developing. It was at one of these meetings that the conversation turned to sustainable agriculture.
Back then, focusing on sustainability at scale in the mainstream food and drink industry was unheard of but these pioneers knew they had to tackle the issue together. As their companies all bought from the same suppliers and had similar supply chains, they agreed that this was a space to collaborate and made the decision to put industrywide standards in place.
All three companies were already involved in the roundtables being set up to address deforestation caused by the growing of soy and palm oil and knew that work was already being done in those areas. As a result, they agreed to focus on arable farming in the EU and US where there was a clear need for what they were proposing, and the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform was born.
It was probably inevitable that sustainable agriculture would become important – Unilever had asked me to start a sustainable agriculture programme in 1998 – but SAI Platform opened the space for it to be recognised as a key issue. When the organisation started, I was just becoming aware through our own programme what sustainability really was and what it meant for the food and drink industry in which I worked. The creation of SAI Platform helped me and others like me realise we were not alone.
In 2021, we are now over 150 members strong. As the years have moved on, our sense of our collective power has grown. This is partly what is driving SAI Platform’s ambitious global regenerative agriculture initiative.
Our Regenerative Agriculture Programme grew out of the realisation that it is not enough anymore to reduce the negatives. We have to generate positive outcomes in food security, biodiversity, soil health, climate, livelihoods, and be able to prove them. This involves changes at the system level that, up until now, have not been thought through.
Fortunately, companies are embracing regenerative agriculture with alacrity. Sustainability is also entering into the brand positioning space like never before, which is helping to raise our profile.
In particular, food and drink brands have recognised the need to increase the range of products based on plant protein. In order for farmers to be able to apply longer and more varied crop rotations, there has to be a demand from markets which would enable projects to justify their existence financially, including one I am involved in with Dutch farmers that focuses on crop rotation to suit changing soil and climatic conditions.
There is a rapidly growing awareness of the importance of sustainable agriculture and sustainability across our supply chains. Companies are finally understanding that if they are not sustainable, they will not survive. However, as sustainability professionals, we know there are still many challenges to be faced.
Although the sustainable agriculture landscape is looking healthier, food and drink brands are still not integrating their sustainability or regenerative agriculture story into their overall narrative in the way, for example, Patagonia does in the clothing industry.
From SAI Platform’s perspective, there is a danger that brands differentiating themselves by using sustainability as a point of difference could go against the concept of pre-competitive collaboration we have spent so much time nurturing.
We need to convince marketeers in the companies in which we work that, to make a real difference, pre-competitive collaboration is the only answer. But we should also be equipped to counter criticisms from marketeers that us sustainability professionals in the food and drink industry do not live in their real and competitive world.
This is why we must do the work to understand the businesses within which we work from the ground up. We must not leave ourselves open to accusations that we live in an ivory tower. Also, we need to make sure that the marketers we are trying to convince understand us. We must share a language as well as a common goal.
When our colleagues truly grasp our concerns and support us, we will be in a far stronger position to tackle the challenges forcing us all to rethink how we do business. Today, these include the continuing impact of a global pandemic, especially on global supply chains, food sovereignty, unrest in parts of the world vital to food production, deforestation and labour exploitation.
But, despite the serious challenges we face, I am optimistic. I have great faith in human ingenuity and nature has a great capacity to restore itself, certainly on the biodiversity front.
Looking at SAI Platform today also gives me enormous hope. The fact that an organisation which started out with just 3 CEOs over 20 years ago is now 150 members strong – and membership is accelerating – indicates we are needed more than ever before. And we have no time to waste.
About Jan Kees Vis
Jan Kees Vis joined Unilever in 1985. He started a sustainable agriculture programme in 1998. From 2001 to 2010, he was Global Supply Chain Director Sustainable Agriculture for Unilever. In 2010, he became Global Director Sustainable Sourcing Development. He retired from Unilever in September 2021.
He has been involved in and holds or has held board positions on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform, Sustainable Food Laboratory, Roundtable for Responsible Soy and Cool Farm Alliance. He is also a member of the Programme Coordination Board of the IDH Initiative Sustainable Landscapes (ISLA).