For the first time in over two years, SAI Platform members came together for the SAI Platform Annual Event held in Cambridge, UK to discuss solutions and share knowledge on some of today’s pressing issues for the agri-food industry. Key discussion topics included climate change, livelihoods and nature as well as regenerative agriculture and the important question of who pays for the food system transition.
People Powered Agriculture was the theme of this year’s annual event in recognition of SAI Platform’s 20th anniversary and the people at the heart of agriculture from across the value chain who are striving to make the food system transition a reality.
1. SAI Platform is needed now more than ever before
People are at the heart of agriculture and in celebration of SAI Platform’s 20-year legacy in championing collaboration, the conference kicked off with a founder’s discussion between Yann-Gaël Rio of Danone, Pascal Chapot of Nestlé and Lucas Urbano of Unilever, setting the tone for the day ahead. It had been the visionary ambition of the former CEOs of these companies that founded the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform 20 years ago. These pioneers foresaw that only by coming together, exchanging knowledge, best practices and committing to active collaboration would they find a way to address the supply chain challenges that lay ahead.
There have been noticeable changes in the sector over the last 20 years as sustainability has moved from being a desirable option to a licence to operate. Notably, there has been an acceleration over the last 10 years that has moved the focus from raising awareness and understanding to defining sustainable agriculture, its’ principles and implementation.
Discussion reflected on the fact that SAI Platform’s members, now at over 170, have also played a pioneering role over the years in the way they have invested in this unique relationship to address sustainability in a collaborative way.
SAI Platform has impressive representation from across the food and drink industry. However, a poignant reminder was made that despite being in the top 5 of dairy companies, Danone and Nestlé represent just 2% of worldwide milk sourcing. Therefore, to make the transition a reality, we need to scale up collaboration across the food and drink industry and it is here that SAI Platform can play an important role, by broadening our membership base and geographical presence.
2. Public expectation on sustainability is raising rapidly
Public expectations around sustainability have increased dramatically which in turn has increased pressure for companies. However, the expectations and understanding from society is often misaligned, and based on a lack of knowledge regarding the realities of food production and the challenges and trade-offs around sustainability.
With agriculture firmly under the spotlight companies must play a role in educating the public and not pander to unrealistic expectations.
For consumer goods companies this is particularly important. Therefore, there needs to be a stronger focus on science-based facts that support the rationale behind actions. Once again, SAI Platform can play a convening role to help the industry align and support improved approaches for farmers.
3. Every day is a learning day when implementing regenerative agriculture practices
For John Jefferies, a UK based farmer and Director of Camgrain Stores, applying regenerative agriculture practices resulted from his own observations and increased understanding of his farm. He recognised that the soil was depleted from overworking the land to constantly improve yields. His transition to regenerative practices started in 2015 when he introduced cover crops and livestock to accelerate nutrient cycling and restore soil biodiversity.
His mindset changed, and he saw the purpose of an environment suitable for nature; one that improves the health of the soil and subsequently the productivity of the land.
This change in mindset was part of an understanding that soil was the farm’s primary asset and that healthy soils result in yield increases and the reduction of input costs, pests and diseases. Consequently, this led to an increase in profitability.
4. Stop degenerating, start regenerating and pay the environmental cost of the damage that has been done!
Juan Carlos Ardila, CEO at Cafexport is a coffee farmer working with smallholders in Columbia and a strong advocate of sustainable and regenerative agriculture.
Speaking with open candour, Juan Carlos Ardila addressed the important issue of pricing as a crucial factor in the food system transition. He was clear that conventional farming should pay the price for the damage it causes to the environment. However, recognition was given to the fact that a radical transformation with zero chemistry and full biology is impossible, and that a hybrid model is the way forward.
Furthermore, the food system transition will only be possible with educational support to help shift the mindset of farmers, along with technical packages for soil nutrition and increased diversification to support farmer livelihoods.
Juan Carlos Ardila closed by asking the room whether nature can keep delivering at its current volume. And in order to do so, what would the industry be willing to give up. Profits…? Yield…?
5. Ambitious statements need equally ambitious action plans and the pace to match
The world-renowned debating chamber in the Cambridge Union has long been the setting for some of the greatest leaders, thinkers and least not SAI Platform’s own debaters.
The SAI Platform 2022 debate motion was: “This house believes that humanity CANNOT meet our NET Zero ambitions by 2050.”
Arguing for the motion was Joe Rushton, SAI Platform, Ari Ball-Burack, Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership (CISL) and Brian Nash, Ingredion and arguing against the motion was Katharine Teague, AB Sugar, Sam Sinclair, Biodiversify and Rozanne Davis, SAI Platform.
SPOILER ALERT: the house won. There is a visible lack of pace with unaligned action plans and current technology that are simply not up to the task of achieving NET Zero in just 28 years.
Right now, there are huge gaps between international ambition, national net zero pledges, national targets, and actual policies and actions. However, taking a step back, there are positives. What about nature and the potential scale of action from the private sector? Companies are waking up to the fact that they need biodiversity, and that the presence of natural habitat is providing a broad host of critically needed ecosystem services.
Ultimately, business can drive policy making. The scale, frequency and intensity of biodiversity action in the coming years has the potential to be unprecedented as world leading companies exponentially enact major changes to enforce the relationship that global society has with nature. With this pace of change, acceleration will move from improvement to transformation because if humanity cannot not work it out, there is no plan B.
6. The cost of transition and who pays
Regenerative agriculture is a wicked problem, and the transition is a journey that will take an entire generation. When talking about a major transition in the agri-food system, there is a mix of overwhelm by the complexity, lack of ownership of the problem and apprehension about the risks associated with changing behaviour. However, there are ways through this.
From the farmers perspective, it is important to experiment, learn and adapt and from there, share knowledge and learning with other farmers. Longer-term contracts and blended insurance finance options for farmers can help to de-risk the transition.
Education is key to raising awareness and the scale is critical here. If it cannot be done in person, then by digital means. Empowerment comes through training and not necessarily just on agronomic practices, but also on how best to run the farm as a business.
The true cost of the transition is a burden which needs to be shared. However, there is not full alignment on this yet, and progress will require difficult conversations and collaboration between all key stakeholders, including farmers, the private sector, the financial and carbon markets as well as policymakers.
7. “SAI Platform is unique. There are few member associations where the members roll up their sleeves and push the solutions out!”
SAI Platform has a unique power to convene that unites members. It is the members’ strong work ethic that enables collaborative action and the building of industry recognised, on the ground solutions to common challenges.
As closing speaker, Rob Meyers of PepsiCo put it, “It takes being ‘different’ to adopt something different.”
Agriculture, powered by people, can be part of the solution. However, there is a real need for economic investment to abate the risks involved with this transition at the scale needed. It is, therefore, vital as part of the supply chain, to engage with farmers, build their trust and provide them with the necessary support and agronomic advice to help them succeed.
The start to building that trust is not another checklist but instead by putting farmers at the centre, ensuring the C-suite understands and listens to their challenges and sharing their story. This transition will only become a reality if we can build strong, long-term relationships with all actors across the value chain.
#SAIPlatform2022 was made possible by our sponsors, PepsiCo, Syngenta and Cargill.