Rolando Gapud, Del Monte Pacific Limited — Sustainability, a societal responsibility.

Sustainable Farming — Opportunity, responsibility or threat?

“Sustainability is not a matter of choice anymore, it is a societal responsibility. It is up to us businesspeople, to figure out how to make it profitable.” — Rolando Gapud, Del Monte Pacific Limited

Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a globally growing demand for sustainably grown produce. Around the world, producers and retailers have been “going green”. Some see it as a PR wave they need to surf, others seem to commit to it at a corporate culture level and display genuine efforts in aligning their processes and standards with the strictest guidelines on the matter. Growing demand also means there are consumer needs to be met and that it should make economic sense to embark on the green revolution. However, there are still many challenges ahead and there still appears to be quite a lot of confusion around the subject. What are the risks and opportunities? How will sustainable agriculture affect the economy and the future welfare of society? Who bares the responsibility of such profoundly impacting issues? What is sustainability anyway?

Rolando Gapud and Del Monte CSR

An important number of NGOs are helping industry actors set standards. Bearing a label recognizing social and environmental consciousness has become a real added value in the market. For instance, Chiquita, a world leading banana producer, displays its “Rainforest Alliance” certificate on its homepage. Del Monte Pacific Limited, for its part, appears to make it a priority to “safeguard the communities they interact with and enhance the standard of living of its thousands of employees”, as explained by Chairman Rolando Gapud.

More specifically, Rolando Gapud commented on the company’s Philippine pineapple plantations which demonstrate first-in-class corporate social responsibility as they provide housing, education and healthcare to the entire workforce and their families.

Examples abound of industry leaders who have decided to bring the environment into the board room, but before real progress can be made and its impact apparent at a global scale, actors of the world economy need to tune in to the concept and agree on its fundamental principles. In the case of sustainable farming, the following elements are the most commonly accepted indicators of a crop’s quality.

Minimal soil disruption

Many innovative solutions are being developed to deal with plowing issues to help preserve nutrients and minimize damage to the ecosystem such as soil compaction or the loss of sequestered carbon.

Cover cropping

This practice entails covering up the space between the rows of the crop to avoid the accumulation of dust, minimize erosion and foster a microcosm of wildlife that is beneficial to the crop.

Efficient plant nutrition

This entails making sure the use of fertilizer is planned and delivered with adequate timing, as most commonly, fertilizer is used at a rate far greater than that at which the plants can extract it from the soil. The production and transportation of these fertilizers is very heavy in its consumption of fossil fuels. Furthermore, the excess chemicals risk contaminating the ground and waters in the vicinity of the crop.

Fair and efficient labor management

Crop farming is a labor-intensive business. Manual labor creates a two-fold issue; a demographic problem of generally aging populations, and cost efficiency. The answer to the latter can obviously not be to reduce the compensation of the worker. Here, the challenge is in process management and the efficiency of the overall value chain to ensure cost effectiveness while paying fair wages.

To a larger extent, general discussions about sustainability and a green economy have been multiplying and are even becoming center-stage within governments and international organizations. The United Nations has setup a stand-alone conference that invites delegations from around the world to discuss sustainable development. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development’s (UNCSD) guiding premise was “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”.

Such initiatives are a step in the right direction, but naturally, also represent a sizable challenge for developing countries, for whom economic development becomes more demanding. Less wealthy countries also fear that this new vision for a global economy could be a means to reinforce protectionism or increase the conditionality of international trade and financial cooperation. If such fears were to become reality, growing inequalities would only be exacerbated and anti-globalization militants would be proven right on a number of their prophecies. A UN-sponsored paper has therefore defined the promise of the green economy as a “new economic growth paradigm that is friendly to the earth’s ecosystems and can also contribute to poverty alleviation”.

There is an undeniable attractiveness to the idea of a green economy which seems to address society’s biggest global issues; climate change, hunger and poverty. However, there will be a need to clearly define the concept. There will also be a need for authorities to set out a clear roadmap that creates a conducive economic environment. For now, it seems that the common view that environmental safekeeping and economic growth are mutually exclusive remains the biggest hurdle of all. This paradigm shift requires more foresight and a heightened sense of responsibility. Indeed, holding off from immediate gain to preserve less tangible benefits is a big challenge for CEOs who have to answer to profit-seeking shareholders.