Business.2010 newsletter: Agribusiness

Volume 3, Issue 2 - February 2008: Agribusiness

Strengthening the supply chain

In Unilever, we believe that our main impacts and influence on biodiversity are indirect. Our supply chain activities (the influence we have on how our suppliers, and the farmers who supply them) and the ways in which our products are used and disposed of are areas of our most concern, rather than actions on the sites where Unilever has direct control of farms, offices or factories. We see biodiversity as one of our 11 key “Sustainable Agriculture” indicators, and therefore we deal with the consequences of changing farming practices on biodiversity in terms of interactions with, and sometimes trade-offs between, farm profitability and vulnerability, soil fertility and soil loss, nutrient and pest management, water, energy and waste (including greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration), social and human capital, the local economy and animal welfare.

We therefore see our in-house business and biodiversity initiatives not only as programmes with their own intrinsic value, but also as pilots and learning opportunities for us to understand where and how we are best able to influence biodiversity management in our suppliers businesses.

Local farmers and land managers
We have, for example, learnt from initiatives in our tea-growing businesses about the importance of tuning Action Plans to the local issues, local circumstances and projects that have resonance with local farmers and land managers. In Kenya, Unilever Tea developed an in-house Trees 2000 programme, based on the growing realisation that widespread deforestation was affecting the rainfall patterns in Kenya and thereby the long-term sustainability of the tea business itself. The business already ran tea nurseries, so the Trees 2000 team had access to most of the skills needed to run native tree nurseries. The programme has now raised and help plant and maintain over half a million native trees, not only on Unilever property but also in neighbouring communities, as part of educational and awareness-raising programmes, and within biodiversity enhancement schemes run by the WWF in the Mau Forest.

By contrast, the Unilever tea business in neighbouring Tanzania has concentrated on learning better how to manage the large area of high conservation value Eastern Arc forest ecosystem located within its own concession boundaries. This has involved mapping, monitoring, identifying key locations, and working with local villagers to help reduce the negative impacts of gathering food, medicine, building poles and firewood from the forest. Unilever is the world’s largest tea company, and we have committed to purchase all our tea for Lipton (the worlds best-selling tea brand) and PG Tips teabags from sustainable, ethical sources. We have asked the international environmental NGO, Rainforest Alliance, to start by certifying tea farms in Africa. Our in-house experiences of biodiversity programmes are important when we need to demonstrate to our suppliers the types of practical action they need to take to be able to farm profitably and in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible.

Our tomato-processing and vegetable-processing businesses in various countries have also shown us the value of working with local priorities and local stakeholders, and of starting with programmes that tie in with local farmers’ priorities. In most cases we have started our sustainability programmes by concentrating on improving crop- or farm- profitability using better agronomic practices and higher ecoefficiency (often with attendant pollutionreduction consequences). Farmers are then in a more receptive frame of mind to think about on-farm biodiversity enhancement programmes that have ecosystem-services value, such as encouraging raptors (e.g. Swainsons Hawk) that eat rodents in California, planting native trees that help reduce water tables in Australia or planting field-margins that may help reduce pest outbreaks by providing habitat for natural predators. Working on local biodiversity priorities — in some cases the national BAP priorities where these are relevant to farmed areas — also links in with local expertise and local schemes and may even help (although currently only in very few cases) farmers or farming organisations to take advantage of government support or training linked into government-priority biodiversity programmes.

Our in-house projects have not only enabled us to develop an approach to farmland biodiversity that can be summarised as “find out what the local issues are that affect, or are affected by, your farming operation — and then do something about them”, but also to be able to demonstrate that it is practical to make improvements within mainstream commercial farming.

There are, of course, areas where this approach is inadequate. Where there is large-scale land conversion from forest or marshland to agriculture, the problem lies well outside the control of individual farms or the businesses they supply. Here it is vitally important to encourage and work with multi-stakeholder initiatives (such as the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil, of which Unilever was one of the founding members) to create the commercial environment where business activities can be directed to support more sustainable production that goes hand-in-hand with biodiversity conservation.

Access to information
In business, we are very good at making decisions and taking action in the light of current knowledge, if it can be made available to us in a straightforward way that can be easily understood.

What I think business needs most, in order to take appropriate action on biodiversity issues, is to have easy access to information on the biodiversity priorities in the geographical areas where it operates. Advice and support from governments, academics and NGOs on what should be the individual business priorities in any one country or location is also extremely important — Avoiding expanding into a sensitive area? Financial support for a Nature Reserve? Pollution-reduction measures ? Providing a ‘missing’ part of the portfolio of ecological needs for a rare species (such as nest boxes or isolated trees for courtship)?

When I first started working in the area of biodiversity on agricultural land, nearly every expert I spoke to stated that the first step in any programme must be an incredibly-expensive ‘full biodiversity survey’- before advice on actions to take could be provided. For a supply-chain base such as thousands of tea-producing farms in East Africa, South America and Asia, or for all our vegetable suppliers in Europe, this was always going to be an utterly impractical starting point. Fortunately nowadays, some national and local BAPs are available in a form that is useful to businesses. And more NGOs are prepared to engage with businesses on priorities for action. Some organisations (for example Conservation International) are now working towards developing databases or world maps where a user can enter a location and find out about local IBAs, nature reserves, pollution clean-up plans and the endangered species and habitats that need protection in that area. This is the type of information that Health, Safety and Environment or Public Relations managers (with no biodiversity-specific training) need in order to take positive action. The provision of information is a public good and should not be seen as an opportunity for biodiversity experts to sell businesses expensive tools or consultancies (which they are unlikely to buy) — it should instead be seen more as an opportunity for making it easier for businesses to use their skills and resources to ‘do the right things’.

Dr. Gail Smith (Gail.Smith@unilever.com) has a science background and worked with tropical crops before joining Unilever’s agricultural environmental audit team and in Safety and Environmental Assurance. She is now part of the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture team. Unilever.com

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  • United Nations Environment Programme