Here we’d like to share a few details about things we’ve been thinking about and things we’ve been doing.
Many companies want to make their business more sustainable, but often they don’t know where to start. Sustainability is all about individuals making decisions and acting on those decisions, therefore, at Viridian, the starting place is stakeholders: who are they and what do they want?
Start with a conversation with a customer, an investor, an employee and tell them about your thoughts, ideas and what you’re doing…and ask them what they want to see from your business.
Don’t wait for it to be perfect but make a start and keep adjusting as you go.
For those involved in sustainability there appears to be limitless opportunities to improve business performance, however we’ve found that one of the biggest challenges is making the business case to company leadership.
By using the Viridian Heatmap tool we help clients to engage with their business in order to identify and prioritise sustainability risks and opportunities. The tool is developed to assess the potential for sustainable opportunities and risks using criteria such as reputation, increased sales or decreased costs.
One of the additional benefits of using the Viridian Heatmap is to start a dialogue with colleagues on sustainability. By contributing to the process, they will not only feel ‘up to speed’ on the subject but also empowered to own it.
An inspired workforce will generate ideas and put them into practice.
This is not a cutting-edge journalistic expose; I’ve not visited enough farms to draw statistical conclusions and many of you more experienced with farming might ask “what’s new?” But that was not the aim....
The Power of Personal Stories
I needed to understand what was going on at this most vital part of our food value chain. In our busy lives we don’t often get a chance to engage outside of our four walls and sometimes you need to really feel things…to hear it from the source, see it, touch it, smell it…only then is the passion ignited ..and only then can you speak with conviction that’s required to “be the change”.
I now have some personal stories that will stay with me forever.
Vicious Cycle of Small Farms.
Family run farms are under threat. One farmer told me “I cannot survive by simply growing crops…I have to run a business too.” Traditional, small scale farming is a marginal business in which technology, safety and continuous improvement go out of the window. Caught in this vicious cycle I heard stories of high debt, cash poor farmers that were barely making a living, exposed to high risks, suffering with mental health and, worse still, ending their own lives.
Payments for Environmental Stewardship are helping – one farmer in a protected forest area told me that he uses the forest “brash” to build dams thus slowing the flow in brooks feeding into rivers. When put into practice across the forest area, the impact on catchment flood management is significant. This farmer also supplements his income through Care Farming where every two weeks he opens up his farm and creates hands on experiences for schools, young offenders and people suffering with long term illness. But he admits that all these activities are, at best, cost neutral.
Flood management using a "brash" dam.
Technology is playing a key role in minimising the impact of farming on the land and water courses as well as reducing waste through, for example, high precision, GPS guided applications of seed and fertiliser. Combine harvesters can now map the levels of productivity across each field and cows can be tagged, monitored and automatically given the correct type and amount of feed.
But technology can’t do it alone and this is where I found the closest thing to a silver lining.
Respecting the Land
When I asked a third-generation farmer what sustainability meant to her, her first response was “respecting the land”. Rotating crops in order to manage crop disease, as well as physical and chemical soil quality, is already a common practice. This is an example of a sustainable solution that farmers have developed by taking the long-term perspective. Another issue is ploughing. As one farmer told me: “We noticed that something was wrong when the gulls stopped following the plough.” Ploughing, that was killing worms and bringing up weed seeds, was replaced by direct drilling, a process by which seeds are injected into the soil. A small-scale farmer uses pigs to clear the ground of bracken and brambles prior to planting with biodiversity rich mix of shrubs and trees. A fruit farmer had created a series of biodiversity rich areas as habitats for pollinators and had invested in a water capture and recycling system that provided over 80% of the farm’s water needs.
Family and small farms are economically vulnerable. This significantly impacts their ability to deliver sustainable solutions. The scaling up of farming into more diversified businesses has created a more strategic approach to sustainability, often driven by the demands of their supermarket customers, which is further enhanced by the tendency of these farms to network, partner, adopt continuous improvement and gain access to finance. The result is greater creation and application of sustainable solutions.
But is this sustainable sustainability? With all farmers reporting increased costs and flat revenues we’re in danger of breaking our most valuable chain and putting out of business the very people who are most able to offer the sustainable solutions – the farmers themselves.
All the pieces of the puzzle
The ideal outcome is that farmers “do” sustainable agriculture because it makes sense to them – for example it increases yield and productivity, provides a good living, puts them in good standing with their community, their suppliers and their customers… and ultimately it’s something they feel proud of…and therefore, in the case of the family farm, want to pass it onto their children.
To reach this point it would seem that the pieces of the puzzle are available – the desire, know how, and mechanisms implemented through a combination of policy /regulation, standards and best practice – within the value chain. But with so many actors involved across a multitude of value chains, accountability is inevitably diluted. It is too easy for individual players to stand back, claim that they are playing their part and, when fingers are being pointed, retreat into their corner. Leadership is needed to bring the players together and this is where the global companies can play their part.
Their economic influence and their reach along multiple value chains and beyond national governments means that they are in a unique position to provide leadership, before we get to breaking point.