Photo Credit (L-R): Global Partnership for Afghanistan / Henry Ngalazi
Oct 16
October 16, 2014

Three Perspectives on the State of Food Systems Today


In recognition of World Food Day, we spoke to three different CGI commitment-makers to get their perspectives on food systems and the work they are doing to drive change in food production in different geographies and communities. See what they have to say about the state of food systems around the world today:

Each of your organizations is taking a different approach to support food production through your commitments. In working with food producers that face myriad challenges, how do you know which ones to address first and where to dedicate your resources?

Jeff Dykstra (Chief Executive Officer of Partners in Food Solutions): Partners in Food Solutions began with the intent to leverage the know-how of General Mills to address food insecurity in Africa. It was a process of looking at the whole food value chain, starting with the smallholder farmer, which is really where we wanted to focus. From there, we were able to focus on the ongoing food processor as a means to create and sustain the food market for smallholder farmers. In addition, on the other end of the value chain, we wanted to focus on finding a way to help produce locally-sourced and processed finished goods. For us, it was the process of looking at the value chain and seeing where our expertise aligned, identifying where the need was and matching that up.

Sharing What Works: Partners in Food Solutions (2009)

Watch the short film above about General Mills Inc. and partners' 2009 commitment.

Greg Asbed (Co-Founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers): The Coalition of Immokalee Workers grew out of a very poor generational farm worker community in Florida. We dedicated years trying to bring employers and workers to the table to improve wage and working conditions. We realized the connections between the food market, the broader consumer food market in the United States, and the conditions in Florida. That is how we made the connection to the corporate purchasers of tomatoes in the market and the rest of Florida. At the top of the chain, companies place downward pressure on prices, which translates to the farm workers as lower wages and worse working conditions.

Learn more about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food Program.

Once we made that connection, we were able to talk to consumers and build an alliance between consumers and the farmers. We wanted to have employers in the industry impact the lives of farm workers. Through the Fair Food Program, we’ve been implementing a vision of a more humane, more modern food system in Florida’s fields and it is changing people’s lives.

Dana Freyer (Chair and Co-Founder of the Global Partnership for Afghanistan): Global Partnership for Afghanistan was formed to help Afghan smallholder women and men farmers restore their livelihoods, incomes, and environment by rebuilding the fruit and nut orchards and other high value horticulture crops that had been the major source of incomes for farmers in the country before the 30 years of war. When we commenced operations in 2003, there was hardly a tree standing and no source of production. There were Afghan refugees returning to their lands with no means--no stock, no fertilizer, and no technical knowledge to begin production. Our focus was on getting farmers back into production.

When deciding what to address first, we realized you needed quality production because without production, there was nothing to consume or sell in any market. We started with sourcing, collecting, and providing quality budwood, saplings, rootstock, and fertilizer and training smallholder farmers to close their knowledge gap.

Scaling What Works: Global Partnership for Afghanistan (2006)

Watch the short film above about Global Partnership for Afghanistan's 2006 commitment.

How do you ensure that the interventions you are offering are most relevant to the communities you work with, and what lessons do you have for other entities that may want to work in these communities in the future?

Dykstra: The uniqueness of our model resides in the concept of remote knowledge transfer. We run the risk of being 8,000 miles away from those that we’re trying to add value to and assist. We try to mitigate that through our partnership with TechnoServe. We hire local staff—usually trained food technologists—who are able to be that bridge between the companies in Africa and the volunteers working on these projects. A lesson we have learned is the importance of being personal, really understanding the landscape and not making assumptions of what the need is in a community.

Asbed: The roots of the program and the movement are community-driven. We’ve created this model that is a worker-driven social responsibility model to ensure that the workers whose rights are in question are the ones involved in protecting their own rights. There is a constant connection to the community; it’s built into the process. We have a ton of partners in the industry who see how powerful this model is and are helping to expand it. Walmart is the latest company to sign on and has committed to expand this model to the tomato industry and other crops outside of Florida. We are building alliances with consumers to continue this social responsibility model. We consider consumers not to be supporters but “allies” in the sense that we’re both fighting for the same thing, which is a different vision of the food industry with human rights at its base.

Freyer: The lessons are to understand the local environment and culture, to engage with and listen to the local community, and to empower local people to drive the program. All of GPFA’s projects are community-driven and require community participation and collaboration. We recognized from the outset that to succeed, we had to hire and train local staff. The other point to note is that our approach is to train the trainers. We train a cadre of farmers who then train others. This assures that the knowledge our staff imparts to farmers will expand to entire communities as others seek to replicate the successes of their neighbors. That’s how these production skills and other skills are transferred most effectively.

The theme of World Food Day this year is Family Farming. Simultaneously, the environmental community is emphasizing the need to reduce the environmental footprint of food production. Most recognize that these goals are connected.  However, many organizations that work with smallholder farmers still do not include environmentally sustainable agriculture practices as a core part of the model. Why do you think this is, and what challenges exist on the ground to prevent this shift from occurring more significantly?

Dykstra: I think in Africa, smallholders are not taking advantage of enough of the tools that are available for higher productivity. We do have one particular client that works with close to 80,000 smallholders and has introduced conservation farming techniques and purchased crops locally and turned them into a variety of products. They supply both local retail as well as food aid entities. This is an example where the whole market—from farmer to consumer—intersects and is very sustainable. When you can link all the pieces together, that’s where you can really see the benefit up and down the value chain. Unfortunately, it is rarer than it should be.

Asbed: The vast majority of the consumer market is being fed by huge factory farms in California, Florida, Texas, and other places. What’s driving family farms out of business and driving farmers into poverty is the volume purchasing at the very top of the market that drive prices down and negatively affects the farmers. The price does not support more sustainable farming techniques, which inhibits farmers from being able to apply sustainable practices.  

Freyer: In my experience, the components of what are broadly termed as “environmentally sustainable agriculture practices” are often not understood by smallholder farmers. It’s this lack of knowledge coupled with the cost of applying these practices—which appear to exceed the revenues that the farmers can generate—that contribute to these practices not being implemented. These practices must be broken down into small bits so they can be implemented in a logical, cost-effective way that demonstrates to the farmers the feasibility of doing them. Demonstrating success in smaller pieces rather than a broad-brushed approach is very important to overcoming this reluctance to apply these practices.

Do environmentally sustainable agriculture practices and techniques impede productivity for smallholder and family farmers?

Dykstra: We are not going to see the future global population fed if Africa remains a largely organic farming continent. There are more and more good examples of traditional agricultural methods being applied to benefit farmers that are sustainable, but I do think that that’s why the continent is lagging in this area. It’s still largely farming in ways that the rest of the world is not.

Asbed: In order for the people who harvest our food to lead decent, humane lives in the 21st century, the price that the grower is receiving and the price that the ultimate buyer is paying has to change. If people are squeezed to the very last penny of their revenue to cover costs, then the thing that they might want to do, they can’t do. The vision of a more sustainable food economy is squeezed by price.

Improving the food and livelihood security of family farmers and other food producers is essential in creating effective and fair food system structures. What are the main challenges that you face in ensuring this security for the food producers in your area of work? 

Asbed: One of the challenges we’ve faced is when companies and brands in the tomato industry are focusing solely on price, which drives down conditions in the fields. What we’ve found is that by fixing the price at the top and creating this worker-driven social responsibility process at the bottom, we’ve been able to adjust the entire market. We’ve had tremendous success in changing the lives of people. We’ve seen that the program works and it works by connecting consumers to the food they’re eating and the story behind the food they’re eating. That sets off a series of reactions down the market that ends up making changes in the fields. The workers have found a voice through this new program.

Freyer: Livelihood and food security are most challenged in Afghanistan by the absence of connections between producers and the end high-value markets. Farmers need to know what market they are producing for so that their produce can meet market specifications. The agribusinesses, processors, packagers, and retailers must find ways to connect with smallholder farmers because it’s smallholder farmers who produce the largest volume of produce. We do see local entrepreneurs who are working to start to fill these gaps, but it’s this huge gap between the market and the producer that is really the biggest challenge to livelihood security. 

Do these challenges exist mainly at the policy level? How can companies and NGOs take action to address these challenges in tandem with policy changes?

Dykstra: In order for us to see the needle move in meaningful ways, whether that’s in Africa or in the United States, we need a systems change. It’s an entire value change. If we’re going to help smallholder farmers in Africa have a better livelihood, we have to address and build up the market that’s buying their crops. Likewise, if we can help a tomato farm worker here, the consumers are going to have to be involved in that. We have to all think in terms of that whole value change.

Asbed: In the case of the tomato industry in South Florida, which used to be referred to as “ground zero for modern slavery,” there hasn’t been a single case of slavery since the Fair Food Program took hold. This is because the system works. Now they’re being called the most progressive sector of all U.S. agriculture and that’s a value to them. They can now distinguish their product from Mexico and other places in the United States on that basis and, of course, the workers’ lives are better.

In the end, consumers have to buy into the idea of a different food system that doesn’t exploit human beings, but protects human rights. We’ve made a leap for tomatoes but this leap needs to happen everywhere for farmers across the country. So it’s a question of really educating and mobilizing consumers because in the end—as the ultimate buyer—they set the mark for what happens all the way down that chain.

Freyer: I think it’s less of a policy issue in our case. The government of Afghanistan is committed to agriculture development. It’s more of a resource and capacity gap. I think private businesses and their investors working with NGOs have the means to fill these gaps—if they are committed and willing to invest and to do so in partnership with the government. The problem is that in many of the countries where this problem exists, the governments are too resource-constrained to provide the needed support. There has to be recognition that the training has to come through the agribusinesses--the purchaser--and they can work through NGOs and local businesses to do the training and to assure that the farmers’ produce meets the market's standards.

Jeff and Dana, as completed commitment-makers, you have a lot to share with the broader CGI community. What are some of the major lessons you learned throughout the process of making and completing your commitment?

Dykstra: I think when addressing major challenges, the tendency is to try to understand all of it—to map it all out and plan—but I think what we’ve learned is to just start. Early on, we called it “stumbling forward,” the notion that we knew what we were trying to accomplish in the big picture and we didn’t have all the answers, but if we tried to find all those before we started we would have never started in the first place. I think our big lesson is just to keep moving forward and get smarter each year.

Freyer: We’ve learned that every planned action generates the need for an unplanned action in order to ensure the success of the planned action. Our commitment was to enable 100 farmers to build sustainable orchard businesses over two years. When we made the commitment, it became apparent to us that we needed quality budwood and rootstock to provide the saplings that the farmers needed to build orchard businesses. It didn’t exist in Afghanistan at the time or it wasn’t readily available, so this generated the need for our staff to travel the country and collect 1.7 million samples of the best budwood and rootstock in the country. When you start, you will inevitably not be prepared for the unexpected twists and turns that you must take to reach your goal. You just need to start and recognize the importance of flexibility and quickly adapting to local conditions.

On an encouraging note, another lesson we learned was that in the end, you might be able to achieve far beyond your initial projections. We had expected over two years to seed 100 farmer-owned sustainable orchard businesses and in fact we launched over 9,000. The conditions were far better and the demand far greater than we had initially anticipated for this work, so we had to be flexible and work to meet the needs of the communities and the farmers we were working with.

How did you measure success throughout your commitment? What benchmarks did you set and what tools did you use to track progress?

Dykstra: We tracked over 24 different indicators, from growth to volumes of raw materials sourcing. For me, the biggest win is in believing that we’re going to help create the market for smallholder farmers to increase the amount of locally-produced food on the continent, and we are going to do that by engaging with other food companies and by connecting them to different experts on site.

Freyer: I think our success was attributable to the local staff who we found when we set up GPFA. We committed to hire local staff who were enthralled to help farmers restart these businesses. To measure the success of the commitment, we tracked a number of different indicators. We tracked production, income increases, number of farmers served, and number of trees planted, among other factors. In addition, we tried to measure the effectiveness of training. Through this commitment, we also saw an increase in women’s willingness and ability to stand up in their communities and use their incomes to send their children to school, especially their girls.

In the end, you start where there’s a need and not necessarily with what you know. From there you can identify the skills and knowledge necessary to address the need. I think that’s a very important lesson.  


Read more about the commitments of General Mills Inc. and Partners in Food Solutions, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Global Partnership for Afghanistan