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The Global Agribusiness Alliance was borne out of recognition of the need for a platform for engagement and aligned action for supply-side companies. GAA intends to harness the collective strengths of growers, processors and traders, and enable those operating upstream, on the ground, to scale their impact and speak with one voice on shared issues of societal and business concern.

When the GAA was launched at the end of 2016 it immediately struck me as an initiative with real value – so I am excited to be in the position now of helping make that a reality. Nine months after taking up my role, I am confident that we are moving both fast (highly unusual in this field!) and in the right direction.

I’d like to share four of my key observations from my experience of this ‘incubation period’ in the interests of fostering honest and progressive dialogue and action as we move forwards together:

  1. The urgent need for a stronger and more joined-up supply-side voice.

One of the big strengths of this sector is the whole-of-value-chain dialogue:  not many sectors can claim to have leaders representing all segments of the supply-chain from the producers to the retailers. However, with a few strong exceptions, to-date it has largely been the downstream consumer-facing brands that have been particularly active and influential in driving the ‘sustainable agriculture’ agenda. Notwithstanding the importance of this leadership, we need to ensure stronger influence and action from the other end of the supply-chain. This is particularly timely given growing recognition that focussing only on sustainable supply-chains is not sufficient and may in fact inadvertently undermine the broader ambitions of sector-wide sustainability, by creating a two-tier market.  As a corporate leader put it recently in a meeting ‘it is necessary, but not enough’. Policies and pledges which were once perceived as a silver-bullet, can no longer be used as a proxy for positive outcomes on the ground – and anyone using only their count as an indicator of success is misguided.

  1. The need to put people and poverty alleviation at the heart of solutions.

For too long we have had conservation-only conversations that don’t reflect the day-to-day reality of survival for many small farmers and rural communities, and restrict the lasting success of many current well-intentioned interventions. We need to put poverty, human rights and people front and centre of any successful and lasting action. Many issues that were once considered environmental are increasingly being viewed through the human rights lens – tackling deforestation is a good case in point. We also need to have a difficult but honest conversation about how best to support smallholder farmers make the transition out of poverty, the long-term viability of the smallholder farming model and to the role of the agribusiness community in shaping what thriving rural communities look like in 2030 and beyond.

  1. Progress, not perfection.

For as long as anything less than gold-standard is openly criticised, so too will many companies have concerns about setting and reporting on ambitious goals. If the ‘leaders’ in the sector are still widely attacked for making good progress in the face of systemic challenges of huge complexity, then the prospect for those newer to the agenda to feel encouraged is marginal. Advocating for a principle of progress over perfection goes to heart of GAA’s theory of change: leaders are key to raise the bar and create a ‘race to the top’ but if we are serious about facilitating transformational change it is just as important is to ensure that the whole sector moves along and in the same direction. In 2015 palm oil purchases from 137 leading retailers using palm oil only accounted for 10% of global consumption. Which may mean that greatest impact can be made by engaging those companies who account for the remaining 90%. This is not about diverting accountability or addressing serious issues and legacies. It is about keeping our eyes on the prize, and embracing the potential of supply-side companies as drivers for change with significant ability to make a positive contribution to building sustainable landscapes and livelihoods. GAA is urging all supply-chain companies to join the conversation, and we are putting in place practical guidance and tools to help them on their own journey of continuous improvement.

  1. Collective action, a hallmark of true corporate leadership.

I have worked on collaborative action initiatives for over 10 years and am a passionate believer – because I have seen the impact they can make: the CGF’s 2015 Food Waste Resolution is a good example. The GAA has worked hard to articulate it’s USP, against a backdrop of a huge number of initiatives and alliances, and it is quite right that this is tested hard and often to make sure that we continue to add real-value and make a real difference. There is growing recognition that many of the challenges the sector faces are shared and too big, too systemic, for single companies to tackle individually. That by pooling resources, networks and aligning interests they can be most efficiently and effectively tackled together. Key findings from a report published by MIT Sloan Management Review, The Boston Consulting Group and the UN Global Compact found that collaboration actually increases the influence and credibility of individual action, and that through collaboration each company maintains its autonomy but gains new opportunities, shares costs and risks and learns from each other’s skills and expertise. If the positive contribution to landscapes and livelihoods is to be truly leveraged then I hope we will also see more collaboration between operators from different sectors in the future. GAA’s first published Action Brief explores these opportunities for agribusiness and mining companies – two sectors that play a potentially transformational role in generating sustainable rural livelihoods.

I like to think of GAA as a 12-year project: we have our sights set firmly on 2030 and in making an additional and measurable contribution to the SDGs. Excitement and determination are important if this journey is going to be a successful one (I feel both). But so too are humility and honesty. We don’t have the answers to many of these challenges and certainly can’t develop or deliver them alone. But we are committed to being part of the solution and are looking forward to working with many of you so that we can move forwards – and faster.

 

For any further info or if you have any questions or comment, please email me directly at ruth.thomas@globalagribusinessalliance.com.

 


 

Ruth Thomas
Director – Strategy and Operations
Global Agri-business Alliance