Climate change, plant disease epidemics, and shifting economies are imperiling farmers livelihoods while endangering the supply of some of the agricultural products we love most. There is more demand than ever for delicious specialty coffees, for example, but the supply is threatened by a triple threat of a changing climate, the fungal disease coffee leaf rust, and the labor shortage left as millions of farmers leave the coffee business after decades of unsustainable livelihoods. Cacao farmers and the companies that depend on them face similar challenges, as do some of the world’s best wine growers, olive oil farmers, and others.
Securing supply chains that depend on small-scale farmers takes close collaboration between companies and the farmers they depend on. It is in both groups’ interest to find cost-effective ways of adapting to new agronomic challenges while increasing the quality of their products, building more secure farmer livelihoods and stronger, more resilient supply chains. Too often, companies try to stabilize their supply chains by investing millions of dollars in pushing farmers to adopt new disease resistant (but inferior tasting) varieties and toxic pesticides while ignoring the underlying problems, only to find that these adaptations create at least as many problems as they solve. The disease-resistant varieties don't taste as good, the monocultures recommended by agronomists are more susceptible to droughts and other increasingly likely climate disturbances. Disease resistant hybrids are soon overcome by evolving pathogens, and toxic chemicals and the debt required to buy them eventually undo farm families on which the whole supply chain depends.
I'm currently seeking clients that are willing to pioneer a different approach. We can build a more secure supply chain through wholistic support for farmers' livelihoods and their transitions to more stainable, resilient agricultural practices. As with all good participatory action research, this will require listening first: What are the key challenges do farmers face in their fields, their households, and their communities? What are the solutions that they already know work for controlling pests, boosting yields and increasing quality, and what barriers prevent them from widely implementing those solutions? What technical questions remain unsolved? In my experience, listing first often reveals a wealth of knowledge and opportunities that researchers with a top-down approach miss. A participatory action research process then moves to identifying big questions that matter to all collaborators. How can we collaborate to make more diverse and resilient livelihoods that attract a new generation of farmers to grow high quality crops? What agronomic practices will work best here, in this particular social, economic and environmental context? What kind of purchasing arrangements can best support farmers in growing a dependable crop of increasing quality? We'll then design rigorous research methodologies for answering these questions that make sense to everyone involved, and share the results widely. Because we invite participation at every step of the process, buy-in is high and farmers are much more willing and able to implement our best findings. Focusing on local human and natural resources, from proven home-grown agricultural strategies like compost and diversification to hiring young people from rural communities as research partners, can make participatory action research much more cost-effective. And by working closely with farm families and their institutions, we're investing in human capability and leadership in ways that will pay off in the long-term.
This approach has already had significant success in the academic and development sphere, and I believe that it is one of the greatest opportunities of this century for food and beverage companies to gain a durable competitive advantage. Three trends overlap to make this an exceptional opportunity. First, climate change and related pressures threaten supply chains everywhere, and companies with resilient, adaptive supply chains will increasingly be at an advantage. Second, in an age where profit margins are concentrated in market segments that demand excellence in flavor and quality, the care with which products are grown will increasingly distinguish high-margin products from low-margin commodities. Third, consumers increasingly care about the impact their choices has on producers and the environment.
This is applied participatory action research, with a focus on achieving economic, social and environmental outcomes through a process that strengthens everyone involved. If your company would like to build a stronger, more resilient supply chain in collaboration with farmers and their institutions, I would very much like to speak with you. Please be in touch.