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Embracing Sustainable Agriculture on World Food Day: A Conversation with Martina Henry

On this World Food Day, as we reflect on the global importance of the sustenance that agriculture provides, it's crucial to consider the future of farming and food production. To delve into the fascinating world of sustainable agriculture, we sat down with Martina Henry, the Director of Agriculture Sustainability at Kraft Heinz. Martina's unique perspective brings a fresh outlook on how we can create a more sustainable and food-secure world.

With a non-linear career path across multiple countries and continents, Martina has developed a strong sense of social and environmental justice. It is this proclivity that led her to work in the global food system, advocating for the protection of human rights for those working in agricultural systems, the advancement of farming systems that promote and protect farmer livelihoods, rural communities, nature and habitat, and the evolution to a regenerative food system that provides healthy, nutritious food and a just transition for all.

Quote from Martina Henry: 'We can transition our food system to one that provides nutritious, regeneratively produced food for all  - as a right rather than a privilege'


BeeAware: For people not familiar with the term, can you describe what sustainable agriculture consists of?

Henry: Sustainable agriculture is essentially a farming system to produce food, fibre and fuel that delivers society’s needs in an efficient way, whilst respecting the planetary boundaries and supporting farmer livelihoods to deliver a resilient, life-inducing, and viable agricultural sector for the future.

BeeAware: What are the differences between sustainable agriculture and regenerative agriculture?

Henry: As an industry, we have typically defined ‘Sustainable agriculture’ based on a wide-ranging set of social, economic, and environmental “principles and practices”. The intent has been that through implementing and following those prescribed principles and practices on farm, a ‘sustainable’ system results.

Unfortunately, such an approach, though important to ensure food safety, regulatory compliance, and consistency of comparison between farm performance (irrespective of their particular circumstances of size, geography, structure, crop or animal system), has typically meant a “one size fits all” farming system and location-agnostic approach. It drives compliance to minimum standards but has been insufficient to demonstrate positive impact beyond this.

Regenerative agriculture by contrast, is generally focused on demonstrating positive impact on a specific set of environment areas - soil health, climate, biodiversity, and water - underpinned, as a prerequisite, by farmer livelihoods. Indeed, without the farmer being economically viable, she or he will not be willing or able to prioritise environmental or social impact.

In order to drive impact then, a regenerative approach must be crop/animal system and geography specific. In tailoring to the farm and the farmer’s needs - indeed being led by the farmer and indigenous knowledge of the land -, the more effective and impactful the innovations will be in terms of maximising natural, social, and economic capital.

BeeAware: What are the main challenges companies are facing in implementing a sustainable agriculture program in their supply chain?

Henry: I see two main challenges:

1. The commoditisation of supply has separated both the negative externalities of production - and on the other spectrum, the ecosystem services generated through the production - from the material itself. This removes the ability for the buyer to valorise - or value - the positive externalities, whilst not traditionally being responsible for the negative ones.

2. The lack of visibility to farm - or relationship with the farmer - due to the nature of these commoditised, complex, disaggregated, global supply chains - prevents intervention since buyers don’t know where to physically intervene, which is especially challenging now that regulation is requiring it.

New corporate - and Procurement - “muscles” are required to manage these challenges, particularly:

· Subject matter expertise, which is in short supply.

· Longer timeframes, which do not typically align with corporate reporting cycles.

· A mindset-shift from “cost” to “value” and a “total cost of ownership” approach to procurement.

Ultimately, it means embedding sustainability into the corporate DNA so that it becomes part of everybody’s job. It also means enabling this transformation throughout the supply chain, which means helping build those same set of muscles across and throughout the industry.

BeeAware: The main theme for this year's World Food Day is "Water is Food". What practices can companies put in place in their supply chain to preserve this natural resource?

Henry: Without water, we cannot grow crops or feed livestock. It is indeed a critical, precious, and increasingly scarce resource that we must manage with utmost care.

One of the key impact areas within a regenerative system is water - both quality and availability. Improving both starts with soil: building soil and improving soil health in turn helps the water-retention and infiltration capacity of the soil, reducing the risk of run-off of soil and farm inputs into waterways. On-farm practices such as cover crops, inter-cropping and wind breakers also serve to retain soil moisture - making more available to the plant when it needs it - as well as having a cooling effect on the soil and improving soil structure and below-ground biodiversity - effects that have a positive impact on water efficiency and quality. Ultimately, we need to take holistic, context-specific approaches and adapt farming production systems to support the greatest positive impact across all our vital natural resources and the good news is, done well, a regenerative approach sets out to do just that - regenerate, whether that be soil, nature, climate, or water - they, and we, are all infinitely interconnected and co-dependent!

BeeAware: As we look towards the future, what do you envision for the global food system, and how can we work together to achieve a more sustainable and food-secure world?

Henry: With the launch in September of the industry-aligned, farmer-informed, science-based, impact-focused regenerative agriculture framework by SAI Platform, aptly named ‘Regenerating Together’ (in recognition of the fact that we must work collectively and collaboratively both as an industry and with nature), I am more optimistic than ever that we can transition our food system to one that provides nutritious, regeneratively produced food for all - as a right rather than a privilege. For the food industry, there is simply no long-term alternative.


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