Beyond the Buzz: High Impact Trends in Sustainable Agriculture

By Anne Slaughter Andrew, Co-founder and Chairman of TerViva

TerViva was formed and launched around a commitment to advancing sustainable agriculture – ahead of the trendy buzz that this concept invokes today. Yet this buzz, and the sobering fact that agriculture produces about one quarter of the global green house gas emissions, has given impetus to the hard work of developing measurable outcome data and of shifting cultural concepts around “the way it’s always been done on the farm” in order to advance sustainability – from large corporate farms to the rural agricultural communities of Latin America and Africa.

sustainability_venn_diagram

Sustainable agriculture aims to incorporate social, economic, and and environmental sustainability.

One impressive recent initiative is the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (“SISC”), which seeks to promote sustainable agriculture by providing common measurement tools and metrics for food producers and consumers. SISC’s goal is to provide a common language for communication about sustainability activities related to specialty crops  (fruits, vegetables and nuts).

The SISC agreed-upon metrics focus on a commonsense platform for sustainable agriculture: (1) Applied water use efficiency; (2) Energy use; (3) Nitrogen use; (4) Phosphorus use; and (5) Soil organic matter.  With today’s agriculture accounting for more than 70% of freshwater drawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers and the documented impact on water quality from agricultural runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus (not to mention the costly waste of limited resources like phosphorous), there is no debate that monitoring and adjusting farm practices around these metrics will advance sustainability to the benefit of the growers, producers, and consumers.

eutrophication-china

Agricultural runoff high in nitrogen and phosphorous can lead to eutrophication, harmful algal blooms, and other negative impacts on lakes, oceans, and rivers.

What has driven the interest by producers and consumers around this more transparent and measurable approach to sustainable agriculture? A major factor was the rising demand for “sustainability” in the marketplace where there was no consensus among producers and consumers of exactly what “sustainability” meant. The benefit of this “buzz-feed” is that it brought together a broad coalition of interests– from growers and producers like Del Monte Foods; trade associations like the National Potato Council; retailers like Walmart; and environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Counsel — to develop a comprehensive system for measuring sustainable practices performed at the farm level.

Underlying the metrics of SISC, and making its approach possible, is the impact of big data and predictive analytics in agriculture. For agriculture to sustain its customers – including the growers and producers – it must be able to feed the world’s population, which by 2050 is expected to be 9.2 billion people. To meet this demand, it is expected that global food production must increase by 70%. With real-time data on critical information (e.g. the weather, soil quality and crop maturity) that can be processed, analyzed and downloaded back to the growers, farmers can maximize food production, operate more cost effectively and minimize the environmental impact.

Rural, small scale farmers feed more than 2 billion people every year.

Rural, small scale farmers feed more than 2 billion people every year.

These “precision agricultural technologies” today can be accessed and utilized by large farming operations and agricultural companies which have the financial resources to support a robust IT infrastructure to gather, monitor and analyze the data. However, this means that small scale farmers, who represent over 75% of the world’s farms and feed more than 2 billion people, are not positioned to take advantage of the advances in sophisticated data-driven agricultural technologies. This is particularly concerning because most of these small scale farmers are in underdeveloped areas where population growth, food scarcity and climate change will have such a disruptive impact.

 How can we bring these technology-based resources into the hands of the small-scale farmers? More importantly, how do we convince these small-scale farmers to adapt to more sustainable—and technology-based –agricultural practices when the farming traditions they follow are woven into the fabric of their communities and culture.

One organization with a track-record that has gained attention from major donors like MasterCard Foundation for their success in developing young leaders in sustainable agriculture is EARTH University in Costa Rica. EARTH University was founded 25 years ago with a mission to prepare young people capable of leading positive change in their communities to advance sustainable development and prosperity. Today, EARTH University has 420 students from 36 countries across Latin America and Africa, many of whom are the first in their villages to attend university. The students come together at EARTH U. with all of their diverse local traditions and customs, and with little exposure to modern agricultural science and technology. When these students graduate, the impact they are having in advancing sustainable agriculture at local and regional levels in developing countries is transformative.

A student at Earth University tends to an organic lettuce project.

A student at Earth University tends to an organic lettuce project.

How can EARTH U. create such a transformative impact on sustainable agriculture? It starts with the fact that 4 out of 5 EARTH graduates return to their country of origin—and bring with them a commitment to have a positive impact. More than 50% of EARTH graduates are actively engaged in advancing modern sustainable agriculture practices, from soil management and water conservation to alternative forms of energy for farming operations. At the same time, more than 75% of EARTH graduates are actively engaged in influencing positive social change, from improving working conditions to addressing gender and ethnic equality within their agricultural-based economies and communities. These students have learned how to be agents of change within the social and cultural context in which they live. No doubt the students of EARTH can best tell this story and you can hear from them here.

In agriculture, change comes at a pace that synchs with the growing seasons. Luckily, we are trending towards a more sustainable approach to agriculture—from the high-tech impact of big data and measurable metrics for growers and consumers to the high-value impact of young and committed leaders engaged in advancing sustainability in their communities across the developing world. Will this trend continue and support the global policies and practices necessary to feed the global population and sustain our environment? What do you predict?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s