Over 100 sustainable food and agriculture leaders from industry, civil society, and government came together for the Sustainable Food Lab (SFL) annual meeting (link: http://sustainablefood.org/newsletter/) in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic from April 29th – May 3rd, 2012. Meeting themes strongly centered on cocoa, on impact, and on bringing the work to scale. Mars is on the advisory board of the SFL and my colleagues Kevin Rabinovitch and Kate Wylie also attended, allowing a fairly broad representation of Mars throughout the conference on panels and in small group discussions.
Preceding the meeting, participants had the option to join one of three learning journeys. I participated in the cocoa agroforestry and certification trip, visiting cocoa farms and processing facilities with a diverse group of stakeholders including certifiers, small organic brands, a food service provider, NGOs/foundations, and cocoa traders.
Between the field trip and formal meetings a number of major themes emerged. There was general consensus that the certifications (Rainforest Alliance, Utz, Fair Trade) have succeeded in mobilizing the industry around sustainability, creating a common language and focal point for action and reaction. “A call to action on issues of the environment and poverty in food systems,” as one participant reflected, certification has shaken up business as usual and caused stakeholders to rethink their approach.
There was also healthy debate around the outcomes of agricultural development and sustainability programs at the farm level. In many cases baseline data was not collected prior to programming, so a clear correlation between interventions and outcomes hasn’t been possible. One session centered on the need to demonstrate impact and target investments based on the outcomes of sustainability programs, because “If you can’t measure it, it’s tough to manage.” This includes measuring outcomes at the community and landscape level, being transparent in outcomes and letting outcomes drive strategy, mining the data coming out of our programs to target appropriate investments, and leveraging larger-scale investments from the financial sector.
While hard data such as yield, income, and environmental indicators were widely cited as important impact measurements, farmers we visited in the Dominican Republic mentioned pride and participation in the market as often as financial premium when asked about the impacts of sustainability and certification programs:
“We feel pride when we comply with the norms;”
“We have not harmed those consuming our products;”
“With the regulations, we’re contributing deeply to promotion of life around the world, to humanity;”
“Thank you for taking us into account.”
Certifications ‘score’ outcomes on tangible metrics such as ecosystem management, social, and business impact. What would it mean to measure the intangibles, such as pride and a feeling of ownership of one’s work? How do we capture the personal transformation of the individuals involved with these sustainability systems? For industry, understanding the community & cultural landscape along with the business & environmental impact can help build a more holistic approach to developing sustainability programs and measuring their outcomes.
The meeting allowed participants the chance to reflect on the impact of sustainability efforts thus far and to share best practices. More importantly we were able to dig into the challenges that lie ahead to deepen our work and be real about the outcomes. I appreciated the authentic dialogue and opportunity to be inspired by the work of farmers, traders, processors, development agencies, and companies working for justice and equity in the food system.