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Fi Europe 2022

‘We need systems that sustain people and the planet, now and for future generations’ [Interview]

Article-‘We need systems that sustain people and the planet, now and for future generations’ [Interview]

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Around the world today, smallholder farmers continue to face sustainability issues stemming from decades ago. Change is needed and the transformation of food systems and supply chains will depend on a new business paradigm that includes other values than just profit and dividends, says Monique van de Vijver from non-profit Solidaridad.

Monique van de Vijver will be speaking at Fi Europe, held this year in Paris from 6-8 December and from 28 November to 8 December online, on the topic ‘Building Sustainable Supply Networks.’ Van de Vijver is innovation manager for health at Solidaridad, an international civil society organisation initiating corporate social responsibility and fair trade to combat poverty worldwide. She creates innovative strategy informed by health and has worked in non-profit, sustainability and trade for over 30 years.

What is the greatest issue facing smallholder farmers globally today?

“There is not [a single] greatest issue, but a combination of several issues that together cause multiple problems that cannot be fought by addressing just one issue. The main drivers of these issues are industrial agricultural practices, money, and eternal growth-driven business practices by ever bigger consortia of global players that have come to dominate our food systems. These trends have led to [a] concentration of power and resources with ever fewer globally operating corporations and debilitation of governments.

“When looking at smallholder farmers we see an ever-increasing vulnerability, caused by the multiple sustainability issues they have been facing in the past decades, many starting to build up already 70 years back, and some building up from colonial times. These sustainability issues relate to - poverty (unfair distribution of income and exploitation of labour force); destruction of natural resources (in general - like deforestation, loss of biodiversity and depletion of water resources - and on-farm); social exclusion, exploitation and disempowerment (of smallholder farmers and workers in general, but also because of ethnicity or sex).”

What are some examples of sustainable production you have recently seen within companies that will foster positive change long-term?

“We need solutions beyond certification that vary from creating transparency in supply chains to empowering smallholder farmers and small and medium enterprise (SME) players, like forward chain integration and other means of sharing value back to farmers. AgroFair, a fairtrade fruit importer set up by Solidaridad set an example for the banana industry, more than 20 years back. This is a unique example of forward chain integration, through shareholder ownership of fruit producer organisations in developing countries, which get a fair price, a voice and a vote and share in the profits.

“Examples of this type of new economy business models are there, but still rare. You will find them mainly with purpose-driven SMEs, sourcing mainly or exclusively from transparent supply chains, creating long-term relationships with farmers and investing at farm and farmer community level to enable them to produce sustainably. Investing in this type of businesses and partnerships with organisations on the ground that work directly with farmers will be crucial. You can find examples of best performing companies in the B-Corps network. In the herbal sector, companies like Pukka and Traditional Medicinals are good examples of companies that have a positive impact on the environment and people. Ben & Jerry’s is also a good example and many more are out there, in and outside the B-Corps network. These are purpose driven companies by nature and their decision-making processes are driven by both economic parameters and other values, like environmental and social performance.”

When resources are scarce, entrenched power balances can mean women have a tougher time growing and selling crops. How can women be given a voice and make meaningful change within their communities?

“Making changes in supply chains, in companies and in societies that are dominated by men and male thought patterns and solutions for many centuries, for sure is not easy. At the same time, as givers of life and caretakers, more than anyone else women know the cost of life and the effort each life takes.

“Women have traditionally grown food and collected food and medicine from the wild to support family health and wellbeing. Much of the knowledge lies with them, but when modern science, industry and technology took over, women were set aside and excluded from the formal economy. Inclusion of women however is crucial for sustainability. Including them leads to different views, decisions and practices. Women are and can become important agents of change, because generally, when it really matters, they prioritise the wellbeing of their families over money and ambition.”