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The Sustainable Food Lab aims to create a ‘kitchen table’ culture where stakeholders can learn from one another. In an era of low prices and climate change, the ability to do so and ‘think outside the box’ is essential

Founded in 2014, the Sustainable Food Lab seeks to create positive – sometimes unlikely – partnerships that can bring about significant changes in sustainability in mainstream supply chains.

Its staff uses science and performance-based measurement tools to foster change, whether making recommendations for an entire sector, a specific area or an individual company. The Lab has a small, permanent staff that provides support, facilitation, consulting and training, among whom is Stephanie Daniels, who manages value chain partnerships.

 Complex problems

Mrs Daniels believes that the problems facing agri-businesses and agricultural supply chains are bigger than any company or actor in those supply chains can successfully address. The answer, she says, lies in pre-competitive collaboration, and ultimately in a systems view of challenges facing the sector.

She told C&CI that she sees the key issues facing agricultural supply chains as the need to ensure farmers receive a living income, the need for the market to provide incentives for farmers and the development of sustainable solutions to the challenges they face. Coffee and cocoa chains share many challenges in common, she said. “If we can grasp the full complexity of a problem in all its aspects there is a better chance that we can develop impactful change,” she explained.

“Food Lab works to overcome challenges and develop solutions by facilitating precompetitive collaboration that addresses large-scale challenges across regions and sectors. Systems leadership is at the core of what we do – the idea that the big-picture context of landscapes, markets and the diverse perspectives of all the players in a food system are essential for catalysing change.”

Among the areas that the Lab is working on currently are the use of technology (such as mobile devices) to help farmers; and what she called the “inter-generational piece,” that is, addressing coffee and cocoa’s growing need to tackle inter-generational issues and get young people in producing countries interested in farming.

As highlighted on a number of occasions by C&CI, the average age of coffee and cocoa farmers is increasing; young people do not perceive agriculture as attractive because profitability is low. Efforts have been made to address these challenges, but there has been limited coordination between existing programmes, companies and NGOs. There is little documented good practice or evaluation to drive proven models; little joint learning or interchange between companies or NGOs; and little understanding of the business case for youth interventions. That’s where an organisation such as the Food Lab steps in, Mrs Daniels explained, providing an opportunity to bring together the different actors in the space to discuss and build on existing experience, consolidate experience and make it available whilst elevating the importance of youth issues among governments and the private sector.

Climate change is another massive challenge facing agricultural supply chains.  Mrs Daniels told C&CI that the Food Lab believes that if farmers are to respond to the effects of climate change in a climate smart’ manner companies working with them need cutting-edge scientific data that shows in detail the projected consequences of climate change in producing regions. The sector also needs practical recommendations about which investments will have the most impact on production, whilst maintaining social and environmental safeguards.

Working as part of the Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS) consortium led by CGIAR, the Lab is working with a number of organisations to bridge the science-industry gap and provide companies with the science and guidance they need to promote climate change adaptation. Following consultations with cocoa companies, civil society and West African governments, the CCAFS consortium produced two decision-making tools. The first is a series of climate suitability maps and the second geographically-specific recommendations for climate smart practices in the form of a training manual that takes a groundbreaking approach by tailoring practices to the specific climate-related risks of different zones.

Another example of the way the Lab works is a workshop Mrs Daniels facilitated with leaders in Ghana’s cocoa sector and chocolate industry leaders to determine a living income benchmark in the country. The workshop was a collaboration between the Lab and the World Cocoa Foundation, GIZ and the Living Income Community of Practice. The research was co-funded by Cargill, Fairtrade, GIZ, Lindt Cocoa Foundation, Mars and Rainforest Alliance, in order to produce a credible, third party study to outline a roadmap for a Living Income Benchmark. Working together in this way produces more credible results, she said. “If a company was to do this kind of work alone the results might not be seen as credible to external partners.”

At this moment in time, she agreed, the low price environment for both commodities tends to overshadow other pressing challenges that need to be addressed. “We may not have found the silver bullet yet,” she concluded, “but working with others we are continuing to look at what the best approaches are, region by region.”■ C&CI

This article first appeared in the March’19 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read other informative articles in the current and future issues of C&CI.


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