Two weeks ago, the Planetworkshops held their 2013 Global Conference at Unesco in Paris. After “Age of co-construction or triumph of competition?” which was the theme of the 2012 edition, the Planetworkshops gathered together sustainability experts and actors to talk about transition. “Achieving a successful transition” was the challenge which fuelled the talks for three days (3, 4 and 5 June). And it is indeed a crucial and complex issue. As the organisers of the Planetworkshops Global Conference write, “Our current economic model has led to a series of profound crises. (…) We must reinvent our lifestyle and transform our economic model. (…) In order to do this, we must initiate a transition towards new economic, social and environmental practices.” Calling for a “profound societal transformation”, the Planetworkshops intended to highlight the best practices and initiatives and to identify the challenges lying ahead of us. One of these challenges is how mankind is going to manage to feed the world. The global population will reach 9 billion by 2050, and environmental issues are forcing us to take the ecological impacts of agriculture into account. How can we produce more food while reducing the global footprint? By transitioning to a new model. Bernard Giraud was invited to the Planetworkshops to address this specific issue, in a talk called: “Is a new agricultural social pact possible?” For down to Earth, he explains the main challenges for Danone, and how the company concretely works to better both its productivity and its environmental impact.
What does “agricultural social pact” mean?
“Social” must be understood in its widest sense. How can we, that is how can mankind, feed more people, with a positive impact on people’s health, while taking the limits of natural resources into account? This question is about transition: how will the world transition from industrial agriculture, and to what?
Danone takes responsibility for its share of the issue, at its own level, and to do this takes four main points into account. The first is related to food and nutrition. We work a great deal on the impact of our products, in terms of health (particularly the fight against undernutrition and obesity), accessibility (physical and in terms of price), and adaptation to local cultures and tastes. The second point is environmental. Yes, we need to produce more, and we also need to develop with our farmers methods of saving water, preserving biodiversity, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, protecting the soil, etc. Thirdly, there is the social aspect: we work with tens of thousands of farmers, everywhere in the world, in very different situations. How do we guarantee their economic viability? How do we help them develop the skills they need to practice the agriculture of today and tomorrow, which is more complex than it has been over the past 50 years? And finally, the fourth aspect, which is connected to the other three: the competitiveness of the company. To be competitive, we must secure our supply chain (in terms of quality, price and availability). Everything we do must also be understood through this prism.
How do you concretely implement these ideas in the field?
The four points I mentioned are like the four directions on the compass Danone works with. We acknowledge that there is a certain tension between these four points: focusing on just one is the easy way out. Danone sets its action in the framework of a dual social and economic project, so we work on and with this tension. We are thus developing a tool called Rise, which will enable us to evaluate the farms we work with accurately and concretely, on all four axes. It is currently in its pilot phase; by the end of the year we will already have learned much.
What are Danone’s methods?
Our position is that we are open to different farming models; we do not believe that there is just one that works. But the question is: within each and every one of these models, how do we manage to progress towards more sustainability? We have three main approaches to do that. First, we work with the farmers. We are engaged in a long-term close relationship with them, and we want all of them to be part of the new social pact. It is our role and our responsibility. But the farmers are independent of Danone, and in fact we wish them to develop their spirit of entrepreneurship even further. This is why we support their successful initiatives and work to make them known, notably through our Ecosytem Fund and Livelihoods fund.
That is called co-invention; we do not define just one standard that everyone must follow. The solutions are different depending on local contexts. We have an interest in our farmers being in good shape: if they are doing well, we will do well. This is how we will achieve the mutation.
The second approach is to keep in mind that we are talking about progress in all senses of the term. We are ambitious, but we also know that the solutions are constantly evolving. Because of the complex balance between the 4 axes, we know that we cannot do everything. And we cannot do everything at the same time. We thus define our priorities, according to local specificities.
Finally, to make the transition a success, we seek solutions that are beneficial to all, that create value for us, for producers and for consumers. We have a common destiny, which means that our efforts must converge.
And all of this is done, also, so that consumers are aware of what we do and prefer us for that. One of our issues lies there: how do we foster actions on subjects that matter to consumers and the general public?
How do the public powers interact with these efforts?
Their impact is huge. For instance, the Common Agricultural Policy has had a major impact on farmers’ choices over the past 40 years. It has structured production. The question now is: how can the public authorities accompany the transition? How can they support initiatives? This will be absolutely key for the future. And it will be good for everyone.
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