Do you believe your grocery stores when the products they’re selling say “organic” or “sustainable”? And whether you believe them or not, are companies who say that they’re committed to improving sustainability in their food chains actually credible? A new study published in Global Environmental Change aimed to answer this question. The researchers, coming from Stanford, focused on the agricultural supply chain of Woolworths Holding Ltd. (Woolworths), one of the five largest supermarket chains in South Africa as a case study.
"If indeed these company-led policies are effective and able to transform their entire supply chains, then they can potentially transform land-use practices worldwide and have a very positive impact on the environment," said study co-author Eric Lambin, the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). "Having this kind of evaluation done by independent researchers increases the confidence of the public in these private programs."
The team found that Woolworths Farming for the Future program stimulated farmers to practice more environmentally-friendly methods on farms. Considering that agriculture is one of the more heinous of the pollution systems out there, that’s a big deal. But of course, the researchers were committed to dive deeper into the whole picture and find out if these touted sustainability efforts were real or just superficial “greenwashing”.
Author Tannis Thorlakson conducted over 90 interviews with auditors and farmers working in Woolworths Farming for the Future program throughout October of 2016. According to Thorlakson, these interviews largely showed the value that farmers place on long-term partnerships with their buyers.
Farms in this program are evaluated annually on different criteria such as soil management, water use, biodiversity, waste disposal, pest management, carbon footprint and environmental laws. The program has seen that the practice of using auditors (trained scientists) who visit the farmers every year with the intention of tailoring feedback to the individual’s needs is paying off.
"The auditors are building relationships and helping farmers improve their practices," Thorlakson said. "For example, conventional farmers are now using cover crops, which is a really hard practice to get farmers to take up but which creates long-term environmental benefits. We're seeing big shifts in farming practices, which is really exciting."
From these in-depth investigations, the researcher team determined that Woolworths' large-scale fruit, vegetable, and flower growers use more environmental management practices than your average GLOBALG.A.P. certified farm (GLOBALG.A.P. is the food industry's global environmental standard for farm management). The researchers hope that this study will motivate other companies to improve their environmental standards and commitment to helping the farmers in their food supply chains.