How we can save the environment, one farmer at a time
Sustainability is a complex, multi-faceted goal. Research has shown that the most sustainable agricultural model is that of a professional agribusinesses, rather than smaller unorganized farmers or large industrial farmers. If we want to save our environment and promote sustainable agriculture, we need to support these agribusinesses and help them grow and professionalize.
The agricultural pyramid
In agriculture today, there are three main options when it comes to the size of a farm, which form a sort of agricultural pyramid. At the bottom, there are smallholder farmers, who work on their own with small parcels of land and are often subsistence farmers. At the top, there are industrial farmers, who run large businesses that produce a large supply. And in the middle, there are the agribusinesses, which are often comprised of farmer cooperatives working collectively to produce their crops.
This pyramid is not static and can change based on the region or value chain. The breakdown of farmers is not always the same. For example, approximately 95% of cocoa production is done by smallholder farmers, so the cocoa pyramid would be a flatter one. Regardless of the specific pyramid, however, there are certain principles and norms that apply to all value chains across the world. One such principle is that good environmental practices are fundamental for sustainable growth. Farmers are stewards of the land, but this is a connection that goes both ways. As much as the environment benefits from agricultural best practices, farmers also benefit from a healthy environment . Healthier soil, for example, will result in greater outputs, and crops require a great deal of fresh water to grow.
The UN defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” with the three core elements of “economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection.” In the context of agriculture, this means that farmers must produce enough food to support themselves and feed the world while also being careful that said food production does not have a negative effect on the environment. This can be a delicate balance to reach.
From a purely environmental standpoint, smallholder farms appear to be sustainable. Smallholder farmers are more likely to work with the land, sometimes because they are unable to afford chemical fertilizers that, while helpful in increasing yields, may not be environmentally friendly. However, when one looks from an economic and social standpoint, smallholder farms are not sustainable. Subsistence farmers are incredibly vulnerable, with one bad harvest being enough to drive families to malnutrition and starvation. Smallholder farmers also often do not have enough extra produce to sell for an income, and if they do have extra produce, they have limited access to markets in which they can sell it. This means that smallholder farmers are often living either in poverty or on the very edge of it. This is not a sustainable model.
On the top of the pyramid structure lies industrial farms. These are also unsustainable. While they do provide food to many people and produce a sizable income, their environmental impacts are detrimental. Agriculture, particularly industrial agriculture, is responsible for approximately 80% of deforestation worldwide. Industrial farms also often engage in monocropping, or planting the same crops in the same place year after year. This strips the soil of important nutrients required for plant growth. If the soil loses its natural nutrients, farmers must either abandon the plot or use chemical fertilizers, which are bad for the environment. Clearly, industrial farming is not a sustainable model either.
To find a sustainable balance between these two extremes, we must look to the middle of the pyramid: professional agribusinesses. Agribusinesses are less likely to engage in destructive environmental practices on the scale that industrial farms do, but they are also more profitable and secure than smallholder farms. Small-scale farms already produce over 70% of the world’s food. If we support them and their efforts towards sustainability, we can feed the world and protect the environment.
If agribusinesses are to reach their full potential, they need to be professional. Here at SCOPEinsight, farmer professionalism is our main goal. Agribusinesses who professionalize see major gains. We have found that professional agribusinesses are more profitable and sustainable, as well as having greater access to markets. Our work in professionalizing agribusinesses leads to progress in ten out of the UN’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.
When SCOPEinsight assesses the professionalism of farmer organizations, we look at eight different dimensions of professionalism: internal management, operations, sustainability, financial management, production base, market, external risks, and enabling environment. There is a great deal of interplay between these dimensions, especially in the case of sustainability. Farmer organizations with stronger internal management structures, for example, tend to have better environmental practices. Farmers with higher operations scores have greater access to markets, which leads to higher profits and less poverty. More professional organizations tend to have better risk management, which means they can try new agricultural practices without having to worry as much about the impact it may have on their overall production. Overall, professionalism and sustainability are interrelated.
The importance of sustainable agriculture
The world population is projected to increase to approximately 9.9 billion by 2050, which is an increase of over 25% from 2020. Right now, there are an estimated 690 million people suffering from hunger, or 8.9% of the global population. If the population increases by two billion, that will mean more mouths to feed, and that will mean a continuing increase in people who go to bed hungry. If we want to end hunger, we need to change the way our food systems work so we can provide for everyone. One way to do that is through the promotion of sustainable agriculture.
We only have one Earth, and we must take care of it. Many of our current agricultural practices are unsustainable and will lead to ruin in the long run. But if we focus our efforts on the most promising agricultural model, that of the professional agribusiness, we can create sustainable change that will meet the needs of the present with compromising the needs of the future.
Contact us today to find out more about the link between farmer professionalism and sustainability.
 Our work leads to progress in goals 1, 2, 5, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 17.
 The assessment tool SCOPE Pro assesses nine dimensions, with an additional financial performance dimension.Back to news