The global food system is so complex that we often get lost in its tangled mess. Twisted by marketing spin. Influenced by politicized subgroups. Chefs and restaurateurs struggle to balance the demands of an ever changing consumer landscape swayed by shifting headlines and the intricacies of an opaque supply chain. Confused, we often make purchasing decisions that compete with our values sending confusing messages back down through the supply chain.
The 10 Principles for Agrobiodiversity serve as a guide to understanding of the pathways towards a healthy food economy. Operators can use the guide as a reference tool in navigating their supply chain choices. For those motivated to hold themselves and their producers accountable it serves as a checklist providing clarity on values and practices. In the arms of a talented communications team these best practices can connect consumers to the positive impacts of their food purchases. A more informed chef with a supportive clientele can serve as a catalyst for positive change in local markets. A conscious brand with national or international reach can affect similar outcomes across a broader global system.
As a chef I believe food is at the center of everything we care about. As curators of culinary culture, we have the power to promote the food systems that pave the way for a more resilient tomorrow. The list of 10 Principles and the practices they represent offer us a clean template to align us around good food decisions. Every meal matters!
Chef and Co-Founder
Agrobiodiversity isn’t just about the range of products in our kitchens or the types of food on our plates. Supermarket shelves are stacked with a plethora of novel food products, snacks, ready meals and condiments. However, their ingredients increasingly come from the same narrow range of plants and animals on which most of us now depend. Just three `staple’ crops (wheat, rice and maize) now provide more than 60% of the calories consumed by over 7.4 billion people. By themselves, will they be enough to nourish nearly ten billion people on a hotter planet? If not, we need greater agrobiodiversity from more crops and more diverse agro-ecosystems, not simply more products from the same crops grown as monocultures.
Agrobiodiversity and the knowledge systems that sustain it provide the basis to transform agriculture for our good and that of the planet. However, to demonstrate agrobiodiversity, we need mechanisms that can trace the journey from where our food ingredients are grown through to the markets where they are consumed. For such traceability, we now have scientific and management tools to analyse the genetics, management, processing, products, end-users and markets for different crops at specific locations and across regions. By spanning the whole value chain, these tools also allow us to follow data on the origin, ingredient integrity, quality control and safety of our food from farm to plate. They can also provide open-access platforms and interfaces to demonstrate agrobiodiversity for different end-users from policy makers to consumers, farmers and researchers.
Traceability allows us to provide clarity in what we mean by agrobiodiversity and transparency in the supply chains that bring it to our plates. However, by themselves, clarity and transparency are not enough. If we are to deliver a more agrobiodiverse food system we must gain and retain the trust of all those involved in the cultivation, distribution, processing, marketing and consumption of food. Such trust involves a philosophical commitment to the cultures and generational knowledge of the communities who have preserved, protected and cherished the agrobiodiversity that can nourish us on a hotter planet. Without their trust and commitment, we cannot transform agriculture – for good.
Crops For The Future
As a chef for one of the largest contract food service companies in the world, I can’t say that agrobiodiversity or sourcing transparency crossed my mind a lot. Sure, I understood that eating a wide variety of food from varying agricultural sources was good for people and the planet, but not specifically why. And then CIA’s Menus of Change happened. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I was standing at the nexus of being able to use my organization’s menus and purchasing capital to help change what we feed our customers, not only to safeguard the environment, but also to empower our consumers to directly respond to climate change with their forks.
Not terrifically long after that, the Future 50 Foods Report was published. Sodexo signed on as the first to partner with Knorr, Unilever, and WWF and publicly committed to focus on creating dishes that highlighted these agrobiodiverse products on consumer menus in the most delicious way possible. This was very exciting. Not only do I get to work for a company that has grown an internal culture that Corporate Responsibility is table stakes for our consumers, we were now publicly championing an amazing chef’s palate of agrobiodiverse ingredients. Had we just figured out how to hit an “easy” button on agrobiodiversity?
The first major agricultural product that we focused on was amaranth and I needed to figure out where we were going to source enough of it so that we could supply it to 3000 kitchens across North America. I wasn’t worried. How hard could it be to source amaranth? Surely, the company that we are contracted with for specialty whole grains could help us out. That was when reality set in. Yes, they carried amaranth, but only in 200# bags for their industrial companies because no restaurants or commercial kitchens were buying it. Could I still find a source? Sure. Our distributor carried a “generic” 10# box that was readily available. This was when I realized that even when you work for a company that is has made a commitment to incorporate biodiverse ingredients into our food offer in a major way, almost universally, the supply chain either couldn’t give me what I needed and if they could, couldn’t guarantee that the ingredients they were offering represent the same values and principals we want to support through our food purchases and ultimately what ends up on our customer’s plates. So, there is was, gauntlet thrown.
Not only as a chef, but as a parent, I feel a deep responsibility to make sure that the food that I am putting on people’s plates is better for their personal health and the health of the planet. I want to help create a supply chain that allows farmers to support biodiversity by giving them resources to help increase the number of agrobiodiverse crops they grow, knowing that they have a customer for these crops, and then be rewarded for responsible agricultural practices. I want an easy way to purchase products with traceability that our chefs can turn into delicious meals. And I want to be able to tell the farmers’ stories so that our customers understand exactly who is growing their food and can feel good knowing that the plate of food that was lovingly prepared in one of our kitchens is providing a farmer with a livelihood and helping to reverse climate change. That’s what this activator is trying to do.
Director of Recipe Management
Agrobiodiversity will illuminate entirely new operating procedures for all stakeholders involved in the production and delivery process end-to-end. The scope of agrobiodiverse products is arguably one of the largest yet in the marketplace of food claims. Within the Ten Principles of Agrobiodiversity, there are implied a significant number of new definitions of measurement, property rights, standards and considerations that extend the concept of product claims beyond current definitions.
How agrobiodiversity is defined will affect how the existing market needs to evolve to accommodate it. Existing food systems are highly optimized for efficiency, which is a good thing given the dependency of the world on them. It’s obvious but worth stating that moving around a single homogenous item is vastly easier than moving around a multitude of smaller diverse items; effort is positively correlated with cost and value. Food supply chains have evolved in a manner that starts from this base of simplicity and the economic benefits in scales of efficiency.
Markets and food supply chains have reacted in a very ad-hoc manner to the torrent of input created by the very act of creating requirements for transparency. Transparency has been foisted on supply chains largely by the market of verified claims and standards. Claims and standards have evolved from all realms of food production and consumption and become relevant in markets through their definition, application and verification. Agrobiodiversity will likely follow a similar track and due to its breadth will be the impetus to evolve concepts of transparency even deeper into food supply chains.
Prior food claims evolutionary paths provide guidance as to how these various aspects are changed and in some real sense there may be the opportunity to use existing claims structures to address elements of what agrobiodiverse products will be defined as. For example, there is a significant body of work within the industry globally on addressing soil health and the broad topic of what it means to be sustainable. A review of relevant claims and defined standards structures of these concepts, regarding the definition of agrobiodiversity, may be a good starting point and could yield good opportunities to fit existing work into a larger whole.
As supply chain systems have reacted to the requirements claims have instilled in the markets they operate in, there is a necessary operationalization of those requirements on individual stakeholders to meet those standards criteria. For example, next generation claims standards in the US have extensive human-based elements to them. How people who are involved in the process of food production are treated and what the effect of that treatment is on the definition of a product is a good evolution. This is a very complex issue though that requires a level of pay and benefits transparency, within a cultural context, that at a very functional level requires stakeholders to restructure entire internal processes to be able to provide. Similarly to predicates in soil and sustainability claims, these prior efforts may also accelerate or inform the practical application of agrobiodiversity definitions and measures in these areas.
Claims and standards have other real effects on supply-chain systems in the realms of intellectual property. As claims and standards are often protected identities, copyright, patent and other legal ownership structures are often a critical element of ensuring the value of a defined thing, is retained legally by people or organizations that created it, or, benefit from it. As with the economics of supply chains, these concepts began in simple, non-complex fashions. As markets evolve it is a reasonable expectation that they too become more complex, enabled by new technology and iterated in broader, more complex corporations of ownership. There is valuable effort in the creation of agrobiodiversity related concepts and that value should be protected to enable and sustain the principles expressed in the agrobiodiversity identity. Furthermore, stakeholders whose actions deliver new outcomes will likely benefit from ensuring that effort is not co-opted by non-compliant players. Falsely making a claim of agrobiodiversity should be functionally and legally disabled.
In very human terms, defined and verifiable claims are a key component to scale it in a trustless fashion. That is to say that the defined idea can benefit from social transmission but is not confined to it. Thorough and valid standards require practicality each stakeholder must assess against the reality of their own context. Within that, claims can be a roadmap for new entrants to understand and learn how to change their activities and validate for themselves that they are doing something different. It is important to note, a viable and operable standard is only adequately achieved by inclusion of all stakeholders in the standards building process. This is especially so with aggregators, processors and shippers as there are physical realities of these elements, and sunk capital, that can prove to be true impediments.
Defined claims also enable a triadic market structure through claims advocacy. Claims advocacy, championed by claims specialists advocating for the expansion and application of the claim, play a key role in the process of ensuring the claim is changing stakeholder activity. Claim advocacy then takes a unique position that is a natural check and balance to other market forces that might otherwise dilute, distort or distract market actions toward an outcome not defined within the claim standard or structure. Claims advocacy should also seamlessly function as the validator whose activities meet the qualitative and quantitative measures of the claim. This naturally entails providing objective guidance to where measures might not have been achieved and ameliorative next-best actions. The engagement of claims advocacy is to promote the idea, involve as many people as are willing to participate in the idea and then work on behalf of the idea to propagate it. In this way, claims advocates are the binding function between stakeholder responsibilities. Advocacy isn’t just certification, but broader in the effort to expand the ecosystem of the claim.
The 10 principles are a good directional definition of the outcomes that are expected by enacting change within global food supply chains. The next step in the evolution of the concept of agrobiodiversity as a claim, needs to focus on the development of what role each stakeholder has in the creation of those outcomes. Edges of influence are important in the concept of then identifying the qualitative and quantitative elements that will be assessed within each stakeholder’s realm of influence. This process will also identify where there are key conflicts between the directional outcomes and the existing technology and systems ability to deliver them.
Technological solutions can bridge many of these, especially where systems integrations or data sharing are a root cause issue. There may however also exist fundamental market structures that need to be solved for. For example, in many instances the aggregation of food products at the processor and shipping levels have proved to be a significant hurdle in routing newly defined products through embedded food distribution infrastructure. This challenge is often met with one of two potential solutions. First, investing in a new less-centralized or decentralized distribution network is a way around these issues. This can be a reasonable course of action if some elements of that distribution network are already in place, however building from scratch is capital intensive and time-consuming. Second, aggregating like products under a defined claim can enable the volume necessary to make use of existing infrastructure. This can make use of the efficiency of bulk transport, however, inherently requires intermingling of like products, thereby obfuscating individual source transparency.
Agrobiodiversity will change actions and outcomes in the global food market. Like food claims before it, there will likely be a natural progression and validation of the idea within existing contexts. The key first step is a proposition of the structure and the evolution from principles to a more taxonomical definition. This definition then becomes the basis of the dialogue to validate, through the input of practicality from stakeholders, and apply the relevant claim elements to the respective market players. A very good example of the next evolutionary step is the Agrobiodiversity Index.
The Agrobiodiversity Index (AI) is an innovative framework that helps to measure the status of agrobiodiversity in diets and markets, agricultural production, and genetic resource management, and to assess to what extent commitments and actions of different food systems actors are contributing to its sustainable use and conservation. Designed by Bioversity International (now the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT), the tool provides insights on policy and business levers, as well as risks and opportunities, to increase use and conservation of agrobiodiversity to achieve sustainable food systems. The AI has 22 indicators, comprising three commitment indicators, four action indicators and 15 status indicators across the three pillars (see figure/table), which are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Aichi biodiversity targets The framework of the index is built on scientific foundations of agrobiodiversity functions in the food system and on input from public and private stakeholders across the food system (Agrobiodiversity Index Scientific foundations & Methodology report 2019 . The AI development and implementation takes a design approach. The AI will continue to evolve and improve, as more information, datasets and analytical work can be undertaken.
To represent the demand from different food system actors (public, private, mixed) the AI can be adapted to different forms. The country, company, project or supply chain indices share the same architecture, but allow varied input data and different final products. Specific AI applications have been designed to support different food system actors in making informed decisions in food and agriculture:
The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT
In A Guide to Traceability, A Practical Approach to Advance Sustainability in Global Supply Chains, the United Nations Global Compact and Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) use a hybrid of the widely accepted definition of traceability from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), along with the added key component of a sustainability focus as:
The ability to identify and trace the history, distribution, location and application of products, parts and materials, to ensure the reliability of sustainability claims, in the areas of human rights, labour (including health and safety), the environment and anti-corruption.
Traceability requires a system to follow commodities through different stakeholder processes and transfers of custody across supply chains. Such a system must be able to facilitate information sharing between stakeholders in order to validate claims such as provenance, quality, safety and product transformations.
However, traceability and transparency are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Supply chain transparency has the explicit goal of making data and information transparently available and is independent from, but well coupled with, traceability.
Fully traceable supply chains can remain opaque if the stakeholders choose not to share data. Further, storytelling content about products is often disconnected from traceability data.
Some also mistakenly believe that technologies like blockchain or artificial intelligence supersede the need for human acceptance and participation in order for traceability systems to succeed. While tools like blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can improve and protect data entered into a system, appropriate reward structures can also be used to incentivize stakeholders to share data.
To support greater transparency in our food systems, the FACT activator has developed 10 Principles for Agrobiodiversity, then tested them by conducting tests with three grains on three continents: small millets in India; amaranth in Mexico; and fonio in West Africa.
The FACT Agrobiodiversity case studies can show food companies both big and small that dedicated purchasing decisions which enhance agrobiodiversity bring a range of benefits that can support communities across the globe.
About the Connected Market Tool
This open source, free-to-use tool addresses challenges food companies face in sourcing crops and ingredients to enhance biodiversity. It facilitates dialogue between supply chain decision makers, supports the equitable treatment of farmers, identifies ways to diversify systems across the agrifood sector, and improves the sharing of benefits in the supply chain.
The FACT (Food, Agrobiodiversity, Clarity, Transparency) activator is a multi-stakeholder group of NGOs, agronomists, scientists, farmers, and food companies both large and small.
I endorse the vital importance of FACT’s 10 Principles for Agrobiodiversity, which clearly express how we all benefit from a more equitable and diverse food system.
Agrobiodiversity provides a foundation for food, nutrition and livelihood security. Diversity in fact, is the basis for crop security. It is believed that agriculture started over 12 thousand years ago, with women at the forefront of selection and domestication of over 5000 plant species, to suit different ecological, climatic and cultural conditions as well as to meet diverse needs for food, medicines, and indeed incomes.
Climate change has brought new challenges to agriculture. It is important that we have a proactive analysis of the changes that are likely to take place in cropping systems as a result. It is in this context that we should look back to the past and identify the varieties of crops which had been grown in difficult weather conditions, able to thrive with less water or in poorer soils. These climate-smart crops also have restorative and protective traits that help sustainably intensify agriculture by allowing farmers to increase the variety and quantity of food that they grow. By cultivating agrobiodiversity, everybody wins.
With the modernization and mechanization of agriculture the number of cultivated crop varieties has gone down steeply. While in the past several hundred plant varieties were grown, gradually this has come down to five or six crops such as wheat, rice, maize sorghum, and potato. The remaining crops are increasingly underutilized, neglected or have become orphans; many are at high risk of disappearing. The current interest in agrobiodiversity seeks to maintain varietal diversity in order to enlarge the food basket and the diversity of diets.
Several steps are needed for this to happen. First, we should ensure the conservation of varietal diversity for posterity. Secondly, we should pay more attention to cultivation practices and crop varieties which enrich soil fertility and maintain soil moisture. Thirdly, we need to introduce postharvest technology measures which will not reduce the quality and yield of the range of neglected crops. Lastly, we need to develop methods by which both home consumption and market sales of these crops are improved.
I stressed this point in my 1973 Sardar Patel Lectures titled “Our Agricultural Future”. For the purpose of promoting environmentally sustainable technology, I advocated Gandhian agriculture where productivity can be enhanced without harm to the environment.
“Based on the most advanced principles of biological science, we can probably claim to have developed a Gandhian Agriculture, because this would be an agriculture where Gandhian concepts become manifested in the form of an advanced rural economy, benefiting all sections of the community. Also this will be an agriculture which enriches and not harm the environment”
Gandhian agriculture is based on the principle of non-violence to nature. On the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, we need to urgently spread this message as the pathway to sustainable food and nutrition security.