What does it mean to eat sustainably?

I generally avoid writing about food.

What and how we decide to eat, if we are lucky enough to live in economic circumstances that allow us to choose, is deeply personal. Advocating one approach to eating over another tends to win us few friends.

Still, what we eat does have a powerful impact on the planet, and conversations surrounding food sustainability have exploded over the past few years. Many in my circle of friends have given up most (or all) meat or all animal products. Those that haven't tend to joke about their deep-seated guilt. 

An abundance of articles, from scientific to purely propaganda based, discuss the question of what we should eat or avoid to be sustainable. Statistics from an array of sources contradict each other when it comes to agriculture's impact on the environment, partly because we use an unruly variety of indicators. Also, the scope of what we mean when we say "impact" is inconsistent in reporting.

That's why I wanted to share what I see as a helpful, relatively straightforward article by Tim Zimmermann, published in Outside Magazine. 

Zimmermann tackles the delicate, complex, and maddening question of what it means to eat sustainably. While addressing the complexity of the global food industry, consumption patterns, beliefs, preferences, and their impacts is impossible, this article does a decent job of trying.

It explores in easy-reading, not-too-long chunks: 1) the benefits and drawbacks of two popular diets (paleo versus vegan), 2) the numbers when it comes to the rough footprints of vegans, vegetarians and omnivores (including some fascinating stats on nuts, grains and legumes), 3) what seafood allows us the most minimal impact, 4) some info on organic, 5) the importance of buying regionally produced goods, 6) a healthy reprimand regarding our food waste, and 7) some thoughts on what's to come.

Of all the sections, it was the one on going organic that left me with the most questions. I wish the article had addressed the challenge of productivity, whether organic has an impact on it, and the massive future demand of a growing population. Exploring the benefits and drawbacks with reference to a few more numbers and experts would have helped environmentally concerned non-agronomists among us better arrive at an understanding of this complex issue. 

I'll explain. While I was raised eating mostly organic produce and strive to purchase it when possible, I've heard from farmers in the course of my work that organic is about "a market". One traditional Swiss farmer commented that traditional approaches to production, using a responsible mix of methods, are more practical. However, the argument regarding how organic fosters healthy soil, critical for long-term productivity, cannot be ignored.

But there's also a very basic logistical challenge when it comes to "organic" - that is, it requires a certification. One that is difficult to achieve and maintain for many farmers, not because of their practices, but because of their limited access to avenues of certification.

Regardless of where you fall on the food issue, Zimmermann's article is an efficient and informative summation of some of the key questions lingering in the air when it comes to food sustainability. 

Colombian coffee harvest the biggest in years

Coffee productivity in Colombia is evidently at a 23-year high, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune

The National Federation of Coffee Growers Roberto Velez Vallejo commented that the increase was "very good news for the country's producers".

Still, while production may be high, the low price of coffee continues to plague producers. Furthermore, record-breaking production is likely due in large part to the lowering of quality standards by the FNC in response to El Niño's ravaging of crops. Lowering of quality standards in 2015 flooded the world market with coffee, impacting the price for all producers globally.

Increased production is good news for many. But for some of the thousands of rural families living from coffee in Colombia (and millions elsewhere), the numbers may still ring hollow.



The Etsy of Coffee - can farmers lock into more agency in the supply chain?

This question is coming up more and more. Businesses, activists, non-profits and more are all trying to answer it. A friend and past colleague of mine from NYU, Eline Gordts, now Senior World Editor at the Huffington Post, explores the approach of one start-up in Nicaragua.

Vega Coffee engages farmers in the roasting process and strives to increase their awareness of coffee's value. It says it equips primarily women to engage in direct trade with consumers, earning up to four times what they made previously. 

The start-up is not alone in its objective and model. Gordts lists other social businesses that tackle the farmer income challenge from a similar angle. Check it out to get familiar with how entrepreneurial ambition can fuse with social responsibility and love for coffee to get farmers a bigger share of the pie.

Why are smallholder farmers "vulnerable" and what's the "uncertainty"? Getting specific about the issues

Many of us interested in sustainability, rural economics, transnational supply chains, food security, and many other social and environmental fields, grasp some of the reasons why smallholders are vulnerable. But too rarely is it summarized in one place. In preparation for an article I'll put out next week about the role of the private sector in supporting farmer resilience, the purpose of today's post is to consolidate some contributors to smallholder vulnerability, with reference to a Latin American coffee context.

Coffee is a soft commodity of a high degree of interest to international companies. In Colombia, over 500,000 small farmers depend on coffee, and many live in a climate of uncertainty due to low prices, threats to quality and productivity, high production costs, and insufficient farm-level income and nutritional diversification.

Since many farmers produce in a subsistence manner, they have trouble saving money and struggle to reinvest in their crops. This can have a negative impact on the environment, as well as the quality of the goods they produce, since it compromises good agricultural practices. For example, many coffee farmers apply fertilizers and pesticides incorrectly or insufficiently due to cash flow problems or lack of knowledge, leaving it open to infestations and vulnerable to diseases like coffee rust. Coffee rust, or "la roya", is an affliction causing major problems in Central and South America, and has wiped out entire harvests, leaving farmers with nothing.

Climate change also threatens farmers and the ecosystems in which they live. Weather phenomena attributable to climate change are known to impact flowering of coffee plants, which can damage productivity, quality, and resultantly, farmer income. Furthermore, weather influences have led to coffee ripening throughout the year. Cherries have to be collected every fifteen days, or, depending on the varietal, they fall to the ground and rot. Farmers often have trouble finding workers to harvest the ripe cherries, due to rural-to-urban migration, large-scale infrastructural projects competing for workforce, and more localized social challenges, such as alcohol consumption, fostering disinterest in the potential  workforce.

Some farmers do not have the title for the land they farm.  Many farmers do not have accident, medical, property or life insurance, despite living in vulnerable areas. Vulnerable, in this case, can mean the likelihood of being hit by an earthquake, landslide, flood, or other natural catastrophe. The volcanic soil in coffee growing areas of Colombia is particularly prone to landslides.

Farmers generally do not have pensions, meaning many work until they die. Even in Colombia, where there is subsidized healthcare, farmers often struggle to access clinics due to poor or nonexistent roads. In remote farming communities, bad roads force farmers to carry their coffee to the point of purchase on foot or on horseback, and many children walk up to an hour to school each day.

In addition to not having insurance and pensions, many farmers do not have bank accounts, savings, or a structured approach to managing their farms finances and activities. This is due to a variety of factors, one of the most central being a lack of knowledge transfer. Many farmers do not have the opportunity to learn these skills from their parents, or other family members, because they do not have the skills either. These are also not typically skills learned in school. Without a precedent for bookkeeping and risk management, it's not surprising that for most farmers, it's not common practice. However, it is a problem. 

A risk that becomes a reality for farmers on a frequent basis is low coffee prices gutting income. Lacking future orientation prevents farmers from buying sufficient inputs, as described above. Farmers say it's very obvious when inputs have been used in the right quantities, since quality and productivity shoots up. That means the farmers most lacking in resources are also the farmers most likely to continue lacking in resources, through starkly reduced yields and negative impacts on quality. 

While a central component of producer vulnerability is poor cash flow management and lack of savings, this is only part of the story, as a substantial portion of “income” in rural economies is not monetary. Bartering food, skills, resources, and labor, is a key element of life and survival on farms. Farmers are often able to grow a substantial amount of the food they eat on their farms. However, those that don't are at a particular disadvantage.

In this context, what's the role of the private sector in changing the subsistence farming cycle that many farmers find themselves in? What are our next steps?

Next week, I'll tackle that.

The cocoa farmer's competitive advantage

Last week, I spent an afternoon with a farmer I'll call Rodrigo. His background was atypical for cocoa producers in Huila; while he was born in the department, he moved at a young age with his family to Bogotá, where he lived an urban existence, went to university, and ultimately trained to be an agricultural technician.

Recently, he had returned to the house his grandmother had lived in, now in a bit of disrepair, but still lovely. Sheltered by tall trees, retreating slightly behind a large, breezy porch, it felt forgotten but sturdy. The front door opened into a dark living area decorated with a young man's sensibilities- a few pictures (some Colombian, one Japanese), no furniture, and two bikes propped against the wall.

Rodrigo was twenty-six. He'd applied everything he'd learned at university to revive his grandmother's farm, with a vigor that his neighbors eyed with suspicion and distrust, other technicians viewed with admiration and respect, and I saw as a fascination for cocoa that was both passionate and nerdy.

He kept meticulous records. Calendars with activities and applications of this and that dotted his back porch. He measured rainfall, temperature, and his recycling bins had been adorned with careful attention not nearly as present in his home. Before we entered his cocoa lots, he prepared a bin of bleach and water where we were to disinfect our boots, in a focused but relaxed manner that suggested he'd done it many times before.

He had a large dog and a mangy kitten. I made the assumption later on that the dog was for protection, after he explained his terrible relationships with his neighbors. Here, there's not a great feeling of community, he explained. When someone succeeds at something, he continued, people aren't happy for each other, they're resentful. He said he'd had neighbors break into his home. When I asked him if he felt safe, his answer was, yes and no. 

Rodrigo didn't just abide by the commonly shared "good agricultural practices" - although he did that, too. But he took his dedication to production more than a few steps further, spending most of his free time experimenting, trying things out, testing theories about his plants, lombricultura, and fermentation practices.

His preferred method of fermentation was to load his freshly harvested cocoa into what looked like a wooden spool, which he could close and rotate. It's a bit more expensive than dumping the cocoa in the more commonly used sweatboxes, he explained, but where the sweatboxes take seven days, the spool takes five. Then, he showed us a small sample of cocoa he was testing for alcohol development times.

While he was extremely committed to fostering a highly productive farm, he was a compromiser. He had balance sheets in his head about how much money local wildlife was costing him in cocoa. It's pure enjoyment to eat the fruit and spit out the pits, he explained. They're not living off of it, and I'm really only losing around 4,000 COP (about 1.40 USD). So who cares? I leave it.

He also told us that the comparatively dense forest on his farm was compromising his productivity slightly. I mean, look at it, he commented. It's practically a jungle. And it was- large, old trees towered over the cocoa plants, and sun shone through the leaves in stunning, delicate rays. But, Rodrigo said, there's no way to justify cutting them down.

We arrived at his lombricultura, and a giant grin or obvious pride spread over Rodrigo's face. He'd invested in a large, specialized tank, uncommon for cocoa producers. Beneath it emerged a hose, emptying natural fertilizer into a bucket sitting in a hole in the ground. I couldn't help but imagine his glee at the arrival of the tank; I'm almost sure he dropped everything to fiddle around with it for endless subsequent hours.

Rodrigo wanted to capacitate local farmers to become more efficient cocoa producers. But somehow, he wasn't always well received by his neighbors. When producers came to learn about good practices, he said, with notable frustration, that they almost never applied what they learned in their own farms. This was a common problem; it wasn't unique to Rodrigo. But in his case, this was likely partly because he was younger, and partly because he was different. The technicians I visited with called him "the extraterrestrial". 

But the disappointing results of capacity building sessions were telling. There's a lot of work to be done when it comes to how we communicate with farmers. We need to question our assumptions about why what we're doing isn't working. And innovation in cocoa production needs to become exciting; there need to be incentives.

Innovation is possible in cocoa farming, and it can be highly motivating. Rodrigo proudly shared that there were organizations interested in a specific tree on his farm, but that he didn't want to get involved with them just yet. He wanted to grow his own competitive advantage; he wanted to have something no one else had. 

He beamed as he looked at the tree. It was rather homely in my eyes, but he gazed upon it with a father's pride. And then he led us to his next experiment.

A day on a farm in Huila, Colombia

Huila was dry. Even in the rainy season, there was no rain - El Niño had sucked most of the moisture out of the region, and everything was brown. Brown fields, trees, and cracked, crumbling dirt. But Huila was still lovely. Rolling, folding hills, wrinkling into valleys, small roadside stands, and big clouds dotting mostly clear blue skies. 

As we drove from Neiva to Garzón, we passed swaths of land that twenty years ago were full of cocoa. Then they were converted to passion fruit cultivations by narcotraffickers, who used the crop as a legitimate side business. Later, the land was transformed again, mostly into open space.

We passed two reservoirs, established only recently by the government. To build them, the state had to purchase of over eight hundred hectares of land that had been dedicated to cocoa production, and relocate the farmers that produced it. Most of them used the money they made off the sale of their land to buy houses in town, where there weren't many options for making a living. Motorcycle taxis far outweigh demand, and only so many kiosks are necessary in a town of 40,000.

Elena's house was about 40 minutes from Garzón. It was red cinderblock, and had a small, well-tended, vigorously blooming garden in front, along with a gaggle of pets. She stood in the doorway, wearing a hot pink shirt, tight jeans with sparkly pockets, and trekking boots.

Inside felt big and well kept in comparison with many farms I'd visited over the years. Her living area was filled with photographs, figurines, a hanging collection of spices in bottles that she said signified prosperity, and an orange couch supplemended by several fluffy looking but unexpectedly firm chairs. From mine, I peered into her kitchen, which had a large window facing the fermentation and drying areas for her cocoa, and an open, glassless window into the living room, allowing her to tease her guests while she cooked.

Her husband and the father of her three children (20, 11 & 8) had died in 2008, leaving her alone and without resources. It was the second time in her life that she had been left alone, having been raised by a couple who were not her parents on a coffee farm nearby.

After her husband's death, she was lost for a year, with no idea what to do. But early in the second, motivated by her children, she started working with agricultural technicians to get her farm running. It was hard for a woman alone, she said, since initially she wasn't accustomed to the sweaty, exhausting, mosquito filled work demanded by cocoa. But seven years later, she had five thriving hectares, which she managed herself.

The technician I visited with felt that Elena needed more workers, and that the trees were becoming overgrown, making harvesting a challenge. He pointed out that occurrences of disease were just a little bit too high. He was convinced that the increased productivity that would come from a little more attention would more than pay the wages of two more jornaleros. He also wanted Elena to keep records, which she didn't. Without records, there was no way for her to know the impacts of her efforts, the tendencies of her harvests, or where she could save. He noted that Elena had a smartphone - why not come up with a way for her to use that? What if her son did it for her? That would have the secondary effect of getting him involved in cocoa and seeing on his own how to make money producing it. Still, the conditions on Elena's farm were much better than most.

You have to want this kind of work, Elena explained. Nobody's going to get rich producing cocoa. But you can make a good life if you do it well. She said that for some producers, that wasn't terribly motivating, and they felt isolated and left behind in comparison to the highly organized and well supported coffee producers.

After lunch, Elena, convinced I needed a nap, almost forced me into one of her daughters' rooms to rest. I closed my eyes for a bit and enjoyed the breeze from the open window on my face and arms- a breeze quickly augmented by a fan brought in by Elena for my enjoyment- broken, but secured by shoelaces. Outside, a worker puttered around, laying a dirt-colored substance out in the sun to dry. I found out later it was a pesticide. Elena told me she'd learned to make it in a capacity building session, and that it killed ants by targeting their queen. Now, she makes it in large volumes and sells it to her neighbors.

At 3:30, I was beckoned into the kitchen by loud cooing noises, where I found Elena chatting and cuddling with her pet bird.

At 4:30, a large pickup pulled up to the gate, and out hopped her daughter in a clean pressed school uniform.

At 5:30, Elena came outside while I basked in the hammock on the porch, to water her garden and share her thoughts about politics, life, and kids - the two youngest of whom sat inside at the table doing their homework.

At 6:30, Elena dragged everyone out to play while her worker, encased in safety gear and a gas mask, bug-bombed the house. When he was done, he emerged to explain to me his favorite place in Colombia - the salt cathedral near Bogotá, which he'd seen while he was working on a farm in the north for 9 years. Then, he told me about the effect the moon had on farming, as we watched one of the biggest I've seen in awhile rise over the hill across the smal dirt road Elena lived on. Elena, overhearing, told me about how it influenced the the making of kids, telling joke after joke and laughing herself into stitches.

At 7:30, her 20 year old daughter got home from work, grinning and curious about what I was doing in her kitchen, eating a plate of melon and papaya in gym clothes. She excitedly told me about her full time job, which she worked 48 hours a week, for a company in Garzón that adapted trucks so that they could transport more goods. Working from seven until five, forty minutes away by car, she commuted five days a week and studied business administration on Saturdays.

In the kitchen, Elena puttered around with dishes. At 6:30 tomorrow morning, she'd fill them with breakfast before sending her brood out the door, well fed for their Tuesday.




In focus: Colombian smallholders

I'm currently in Colombia working on a collaborative project with small coffee and cocoa sourcing companies. The trip has put me back in one of my favorite environments - small farms. The houses, the gardens, the mountainous backdrops - Colombian farms are often breathtakingly beautiful.

While today's post will be brief, stay tuned for upcoming posts giving a glimpse into who some of these farmers are, and what they do from day to day.

The first post, which I'll try to get out later this week, will talk a bit about a woman who I'll call Elena, who runs her own cocoa farm while raising three children alone.

Stay tuned!

"Super" El Niño set to wreak havoc on Latin American farmers

In addition to spurring a decline in quality of coffee delivered to market, an exceptionally strong El Niño has resulted in Colombia seeing agricultural losses in 20 departments.

In summary, El Niño occurs when the equatorial pacific warms due to a weakening of trade winds, triggering an atmospheric reaction that we may experience as unusual, strong, and at times catastrophic weather.

While agricultural news and other weather-focused sources  have been talking about the current El Niño phenomenon for awhile, it has hit mainstream US media outlets somewhat recently, party because the US hasn't yet seen much of an impact. Nevertheless, sources have wasted no time in describing the current phenomenon as a "Godzilla" or "Super" El Niño.

What we're seeing now has by some accounts been projected to out-perform the brutal 1997-98 El Niño that resulted in floods, fires, droughts, killed 30,000 people, and caused around $100 billion in damage.

In Latin America, central concerns already coming to fruition are drought and heavy rainfall. In Peru, unusual amounts of rain on the coast, freezing temperatures in the highlands, and drought in the south are all expected outcomes. 

Meanwhile, poor families across the globe, many of whom already contend with food shortages, are expected to face increased insecurity and hunger as a result of El Niño induced drought. Marketwatch reports that tens of thousands of people in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are already confronted with ongoing drought conditions that have caused widespread hunger, despite recent rain.

Colombia has seen low rainfall, and is now dealing with water deficits of up to 60%. This has diminished crop quality, leading to widespread losses, and pushed 9 of Colombia's 32 departments into a state of emergency.

Leading to extreme temperatures and forest fires, the conditions are expected to become dire in January 2016 as the dry season begins, and persist until March 2016. El Niño has been predicted to hit its peak globally between November 2015 and January 2016.

The Bogota Post reports that the drought is the worst in Colombia's history, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated that the drought had been upgraded from 'moderate' to 'strong'. After a summit focused on El Niño, he commented on the importance of saving water.

The publication reports that in Huila, the situation is dire. 15,103 hectares of agricultural land has already been affected, causing massive losses in coffee, corn, rice and livestock sectors. In Tolima, aid is needed in support of 25,000 families affected by El Niño. In Risaralda, flower production has fallen by 60%. In Caldas, coffee crops are starkly affected.

Coffee prices drop as Colombian beans flood the market

Spurred by the weather phenomenon El Niño, 18% of the coffee coming to market in Colombia has not met the quality standards of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC), compared with the previous average of 10%.

It should be mentioned that the FNC has impressive quality requirements and traceability mechanisms.

In response to the crisis, however, the organization has relaxed standards, boosting Colombian exports by enabling farmers to sell more coffee. As a result, unexpected volumes of Colombian Arabica has entered the market, driving down international prices. 

Colombia and Brazil are the two biggest producers of Arabica coffee, which the Bloomberg Commodity Index reports as recently plunging the most of 22 raw materials. 

The entry of this lower-quality coffee into the market is predicted to have ramifications for coffee-producing countries in Latin America and beyond, as roasters elect the cheaper option.

In the meantime, large-scale roads projects in Colombia has led to coffee rotting on trees. The infrastructure works offer pay that coffee producers cannot compete with, leading to a deficit in farm workers.

Better-paid work for Colombians is positive, as will be infrastructural development in the lives of many. However, the flip side of the coin is that in a coffee economy ravaged by El Niño and plunging prices, the hardships for smallholders, who already struggled to pay workers, are increasing. 

Unpicked coffee starkly reduces what farmers are able to sell, and nurtures the potential for infestations with pests like "la broca".



Smallholder Farmers and Business - a report by HYSTRA

How to increase farmer prosperity and make smallholder farming an attractive career option is a critical question for many - including myself - with implications for the whole planet.

HYSTRA has made a valuable contribution to the conversation with their report "Smallholder Farmers and Business: 15 pioneering collaborations for improved productivity and sustainability".

The executive summary addresses key findings, and is worth a read.