Interview: How Coca-Cola is working to advance sustainable global agriculture

Photo caption: Dr. Brovelli recently helped set up an experimental citrus orchard at the Los Chiles school in Costa Rica. 

Dr. Ernesto Brovelli is senior manager for sustainable agriculture at The Coca-Cola Company, and president of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform, the largest network of food and beverage companies dedicated to advancing sustainable agriculture.

I interviewed him recently to find out his thoughts on the New Alliance for Global Food and Nutrition Security, the G8’s plan to lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years through agriculture.

Multi-national food and beverage companies present a huge business opportunity for farmers in the in the developing world. If more companies like Coca-Cola, either through the New Alliance or on their own, sourced food produced in an environmentally-conscious way and provided farmers access to training in a sustainable way, I’m convinced we’d see an increase in long-term poverty reduction.

Kelly: Congratulations on your election to be President of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform. Why did you decide to take on that role?
Dr. Brovelli: There is a lot of enthusiasm for sustainable agriculture nowadays, but the SAI Platform really stands out in its potential to reach a large scale. With mounting pressures on food production systems, the SAI Platform addresses key issues for the food and beverage industry in a collaborative, science-based and actionable way. The SAI Platform just turned 10 years old and its success is evidenced in its membership base, which grew from three founding companies – Nestle, Danone and Unilever – to more than 40 now.

You just got back from Costa Rica. What were you doing there?
Juices are an important part of our Company’s portfolio. A few years ago, we joined forces with one of our juice suppliers and decided to launch a project on sustainable orange production, with a focus on capacity building and economic empowerment. For this project, we selected an agricultural school in one of Costa Rica’s poorest districts, called Los Chiles.

We set up an experimental citrus orchard at the Los Chiles school, and Earth University provides agronomic support. In this experimental grove, students run tests – on composting and soil microorganisms that fix nitrogen from the air, thus reducing the fertilization needs. The students learn by doing and the juicer uses research findings from the school to inform the farmers who grow the fruit that they use.

It’s also sustainable from a business perspective: in a couple of years, the school will sell the harvests to our supplier and, even if Coca-Cola leaves, students will have gained skills and the school will have a consistent stream of revenue.

The New Alliance for Global Food and Nutrition Security is a global initiative that seeks to bring new private sector companies into African agriculture. What are the risks of this?
I appreciate you asking this. It is very important that we walk into projects of vast scale with thoughtfulness. For a community, if done right, the New Alliance can bring new sources of income and business that should carry on, even if a major player leaves.

We need to recognize the importance of enhancing food production, but doing so in a sustainable manner, without jeopardizing natural resources. We do not want increased yields if there are serious unintended consequences.  It is clear that we need to produce more food, but any time there is agricultural expansion,  we need to be cognizant of the possible environmental costs of this new activity, and we must do environmental assessments ahead of time, looking at watershed status, water quality, biodiversity, etc.

We also need to place particular emphasis on soil health as healthy soils underpin productivity.  Water is receiving a lot of attention these days, but there is a clear connectivity between water and soil. Finally, I get distraught when I think only of increasing yields to feed a growing population, but forget about what happens after food leaves the farm.  In many places, 50 percent of food gets lost before it reaches houses. This conundrum of feeding a growing population is a serious one. When we waste food, we are not only wasting nutrients, we’re wasting water, agrochemicals, labor and land.

What can companies do to maximize the benefit they bring to Africa and minimize the risks?
First – conduct evaluations before starting a project, not just on environmental conditions, but also on how the project might affect communities, whether it can be financially sustainable in the long-term and what policies might need to shift to support it.

Second – success is contingent on projects being both top-down and bottom-up. Active participation and consultation is critical, NOT just checking the box to say you’ve consulted. Stakeholder consultation is exactly what we did in the Los Chile project, which is why it was so successful and so widely accepted in the community.

Third – the sustainability agenda will only make a difference if it is holistic and science-based. Sustainable agriculture lies precisely at a junction of a number of disciplines from agronomy, to food science, from anthropology to finance.

Fourth – share, share, share. Learn from one another so that everyone benefits. Embark on projects together and share your knowledge about what worked – and what didn’t.

SAI Platform is a “pre-competitive” industry platform. To learn more about SAI Platform, visit http://www.saiplatform.org/. Also, tell ONE: how do you think food and beverage corporations can act more sustainably in your country?