There is always a solution!

I am truly saddened to hear that Guy Hogge, former Global Head of Sustainability for Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC), has passed away after a long illness.

In his memory, I publish a short extract of a conversation we had back in 2016. It is as relevant now as it was then.

There is an old proverb that “the good die young.”  I offer my condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

Good morning, Guy. What are the biggest challenges that our sector faces in terms of sustainability?

One of our biggest challenges relates to the environment, particularly in terms of deforestation and the preservation of natural habitats. It is a huge challenge given the amount of food that we must produce to feed a growing population in the years and decades ahead. We must ensure that the expansion of food production does not come at a massive environmental cost.

Another enormous challenge concerns human rights and labour issues, particularly in developing countries, and especially around forced child labour and bonded labour. Trying to eradicate both from agricultural supply chains is a huge undertaking.

Where are the hot points now: palm, cotton, soy?

Palm is a concern, obviously. The anticipated expansion of soybean production in South America is attracting a lot of scrutiny.  There is concern in cotton regarding water usage in both growing and processing it, but also regarding the amount of water used in washing clothes during their life cycle—and I have no idea how to resolve that!

I read somewhere that the world will need to produce as much food in the next forty years as it did in the last 8,000 years. Can we do it?

Across a basket of the main agricultural commodities, there is currently a slowing down in the rate of increase in agricultural yields, the amount of food that each hectare produces. This trend needs to be reversed if we are to produce the food that we will need without cutting down forests or invading natural habitats. If we want to preserve those habitats—and I certainly do—we will need to see massive yield increases from limited and constrained resources like land and water.

Are you optimistic that we can feed the world in a sustainable way?

Large-scale agriculture is already relatively efficient in terms of how much of each crop is utilized. Sugarcane is a good example. The dry matter from the crushing process, the bagasse, is burnt to provide electricity both for the mill and for the surrounding areas. The sludge (vinasse) from the production process is reapplied to the land as fertilizer. Water treatment methodologies have improved tremendously to allow wastewater to be recycled and reused.

The mindset in agriculture now is to extract the maximum value from field crops and to reduce waste to a minimum. To move along that road, we need continuous improvement in technology and process efficiency. We need to use every part of the plant and recycle any waste material left over from harvesting and processing.

Africa is the one continent that is expected to see the biggest population increase. Can Africa feed itself or will it need massive food imports?

I am not an agronomist but in terms of suitable land for cultivation, I would have to say that with the proper investment Africa has the potential to be self-sufficient in food—and even to be an exporter of food. A lot of countries import food that they are perfectly capable of growing domestically.

As population and food production in Africa grows, the native flora and fauna will become increasingly under pressure. Is there any solution to this?

There is always a solution! We need to look at which areas can be brought into agricultural production, and which areas should be kept as natural habitats. There is a balance to be struck, but it requires good governance.

Many farmers in developing countries live in poverty. What can be done to improve their conditions?

Education is key, not just in general terms but specifically on husbandry techniques and yield improvement. That is tough for us to implement in areas where we as a company have no direct relationship with the farmers. In cases like that, it is the amalgamators of volume—the local cooperatives for example—that have a significant role to play in making sure that each farmer receives the necessary coaching and education.

If this isn’t done the next generation will abandon their land to seek better opportunities in the cities. This is already happening. We must incentivise that young generation—through better returns or through government support—to stay on the farms.

It is a sensitive subject as to whether agricultural land should be amalgamated to capture economies of scale, lower costs and give farmers better returns. It is a question as to how you achieve economies of scale while not harming local communities or culture. Going into a continent like Africa to farm huge concessions will invariably always have an impact on local communities. 

How do you deal with countries that have a less than perfect record in human rights or environmental sustainability? Do you engage with them, or boycott them?

In the context of sustainability, I believe that engagement is better than boycott.  Engaging with Indonesian palm oil producers, for example, can lead to positive change. The same applies to engaging with smallholder farmers as to why education for their children is more important than having a little extra help on the farm.

Avoiding questionable supply chains completely may be an easy way to refrain from dealing with an issue, but it is not the best way to inspire and encourage change on the ground. If you want to address issues you have to be involved in them.

Any other thoughts?

I want to make it clear that not everything is perfect. But we are moving in the right direction, that’s for sure. As the saying goes, “sustainability is a journey, not a destination”.

The second point I would like to make is that sustainability is one area in which we can be collaborative, even with our most ardent competitors. We can take what we do and share it with others through commodity roundtables or other networks such as industry associations and multilateral institutions. That is the only way we can have the collective brainpower to find the innovative solutions that we will need in the decades ahead.

The third point is that we need the politicians to take a neutral stance. We have recently seen some fairly worrying political thinking regarding climate change; it has been introverted and insular instead of being inclusive and collaborative. No individual, company or even country can solve these issues by themselves. But we can if we work together.

Having said that I find particularly encouraging the way that the private sector has responded to the lack of political engagement on issues like climate change. The consumer is clearly concerned about the issue, and businesses are reacting to that concern with the help of civil society. I am already greatly encouraged to see how the private sector can work together with civil society.

After all, we are all people—and we all live on the same planet!

 R.I.P.  Guy.

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