Sustainable food systems, while preserving the environment, ecosystems and biodiversity should also be able to ensure economic prosperity. While the value chain in conventional agricultural systems refers to the value added to the product from the farm to the consumer, “agro-ecological” value chain is a bit different. It is about understanding how agro-ecologically produced crops become marketable products that are recognized by consumers for their agro-ecological qualities. The value chain begins not after the product is produced, but much before. Value is created by the way the crop is produced without using chemicals, costs are minimized by following the concepts of recycling and reuse and by collective marketing. Sustainable food value chains need to be integrated in a way that it leads to farm sustainability, generates income and employment opportunities in rural areas, particularly for youth and women.
The farming majority are small holders. They are unorganised and driven by the uncertainties of climate and markets. For them, improved productivity with timely access to inputs is only a beginning. The challenge is to get good price for their produce. Promoting smaller supply chains that end in local markets will go a long way in helping farmers realise better returns.
It is indeed recognised that farmers should have certain abilities; simultaneously, concurrent strategies be operationalized. This issue includes examples of motivated farmers and farmer groups trying out diverse strategies, some purely by their own innovative spirit and some through facilitation by farmer supportive agencies, primarily civil societies.
Farm diversity is the key
Agro ecological food production builds on farm diversity. On-farm diversified production facilitates synergy and complementarity among farms and enterprises, for example through processing, recycling etc. This approach allows producing most of the inputs needed locally, which allows keeping prices low while providing high-quality products. For instance, efficient integration of fishery with livestock, poultry and vegetable crops, clearly showed advantage over conventional monoculture practices. Diversified produce from the farm improves nutritional status of household and also generates steady incomes and employment opportunities throughout the year. (Deepa Bisht, p.14).
In maintaining biodiversity there is a pride with purpose beyond the simple producer – market relationship. This is reflected in efforts around seed conservation which is critical in maintaining biodiversity. Twenty five thousand people from four northern districts of Kerala have been procuring, preserving and exchanging all sorts of seed through melas (C F John, p.19). A visitor’s observation captures the spirit. “What we get to see in the stalls are not just seeds but also the spirit of dedicated collectives. The seeds reflect their labour of love. Hence they spoke from their hearts. It expressed the dignity of their work, the beauty of the togetherness, confidence and contentment. They see the work as their contribution to the coming generation.”
Besides mixed cropping and integrated models of enterprises, agro forestry is a good example of diversity offering multiple benefits. Forests play a pivotal role in providing ecosystem services, ranging from biodiversity conservation to climate regulation. The inherent species in these systems serve as diverse income sources besides offering a variety of processing and marketing opportunities. For example, systems that produce spices, such as vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper, also produce cut flowers, animal fodder, rice, beans, bamboo, and plants for essential oils such as patchouli and orange leaves. Analog Forestry can be used as a tool to produce commercial products while preserving the structure and function of ecosystems. (Eduardo, p.28).
Agro ecological production fosters innovative spirit of farmers. For instance, Kalaiselvan who practises mixed cropping is not only innovative but is constantly engaged in searching for alternatives, attempting innovative experiments on his field to study and understand the nature and climate variations. He is now a role model and around 30 farmers are following his approach to farming. (p. 23).
A consequence of developing agroecological interventions based on local ecological, social and economic contexts is that producers and their organizations come to play a central role in spreading agroecological practices, and through engaging with markets to ensure better incomes for farmers.
It is possible to establish an inclusive, sustainable and scalable model of agro ecological value chain through direct engagement of farmers through collectives. There are several examples of farmer producer organisations and companies which are able to bridge the producer and the consumers. NGOs and Foundations play a critical role in facilitating such farmer managed institutions. For instance, Agragamee in Orissa (p. 10) has facilitated a FPO which now takes care of collective input procurement and marketing too. The collectivizing efforts have helped farmers increase their income levels. It has also enhanced their bargaining power. Also, farmers in Gujarat have gained a competitive edge by exercising their power of negotiation, through direct engagement in the market space. (Shukla and Gururani, p.6).
Value addition – Quality itself as value
Focusing on quality is essential. Besides producing a chemical free, safe produce through agroecological methods, other methods like grading and sorting of produce can add additional value, ensuring better returns. While branding through certification is an expensive affair for the agroecological farmers, alternatives like the PGS process can help achieve the same results. Value can be added by using a label or brand associated with a set of production standards through participatory guarantee systems. This can vary from packaging wholesale quantities of honey into retail-sized jars with information labels, to drying leaves and other plant parts to create special blends (i.e. curries or teas). Beyond building a brand, PGS also results in community building facilitating peer education. (Eduardo, p.28). Yet another approach is branding the uniqueness of a product which emerges from a specific agroecological setting. Kolli Hills coffee is produced under unique, organic agro ecological systems that incorporate a wide variety of food products which could make it more attractive to customers.(Ingrid Fromm , p.17)
Sustainable consumption can drive sustainable production. Popularising traditional foods with the consumers will result in enhancing demand. For example, tribal groups, guided by BAIF have been popularizing the traditional food based dishes through their outlets called ‘Nahari’. Besides promoting local cuisine, these Naharis have transformed into successful enterprises. There is no looking back for these empowered women who have graduated from being ordinary housewives to successful entrepreneurs capable of giving other eateries a run for their money. (BAIF, p.24)
Challenges and way forward
There are however, a number of challenges which need to be addressed, for example, lack of infrastructure for storage, lack of awareness on market dynamics etc. Several concepts of marketing like collective trading are also new to the farmers. Hence, FPCs need better understanding of the markets. Also the entrepreneurial spirit and skills of farmers need to be strengthened. NGOs though play a crucial role in development of the Farmer Producer Companies, however, they too lack adequate capacities to guide and handhold farmers in the ever dynamic marketing processes. Lastly, a favourable ecosystem in terms of policies that support agroecological production and the development of short supply chains is necessary. For instance, integrating school feeding and public procurement programmes provide an opportunity for marketing agroecological produce, which is presently lacking.
Alexandre Meybeck and Suzanne Redfern (eds.), Sustainable Value Chains for Sustainable Food Systems, 2016, FAO, Rome, ISBN: 978-92-5-109532-4