Advancing Sustainable Agriculture in the Americas by Sharing Knowledge and Dialogue

Author: Erika Luna

Agriculture is essential to the Americas. The bananas, cocoa, coffee, and other commodities produced in the region feed families, provide livelihoods, and shape ecosystems. Farming practices thus have major implications across this region of more than 1 billion people. IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives recently delivered a series of training workshops for key agricultural sector actors to share how voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance can help promote environmental stewardship and social justice.

For this initiative, we partnered with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), a unique Pan-American body that strives to help governments pursue agricultural development and rural well-being through international technical cooperation in pursuit of excellence.

Our first step was to conduct an information needs assessment with IICA members, which include 34 nations of the Americas (all except Cuba). After considering their expressed needs, IISD created three tailored training modules that addressed an overarching question: How can decision-makers leverage VSSs to make agriculture more sustainable?

During the first module, facilitators introduced participants to sustainability standards and their characteristics, and outlined global sustainable production and consumption trends. It was an interactive session, where attendees reflected on the potential for VSSs to support agricultural and other policy objectives for key regional commodity sectors such as: advancing sustainable and resilient practices; creating value through innovation; capacity building; and attracting investment. Delegates described barriers related to oversupply and lack of demand that limit the growth of VSS-compliant markets. Some also pointed to the price disparity between what farmers receive compared to the price that consumers pay. They also highlighted ways to potentially overcome those challenges, such as through monetary incentives for producers to become VSS-compliant and raising consumer awareness about sustainable consumption.

“It is crucial to realize the importance of VSSs and the role they play in the agricultural sector,” said participant Gabrielle de Souza with the Ministry of Agriculture, Land, and Fisheries of Trinidad and Tobago. “As I work directly in soil and land capability, it is beneficial to see the VSSs applied to the environment, land, biodiversity, and conservation.”

The second module focused on a pressing social issue in the Americas: poverty. Facilitators explored the strengths and limitations of VSSs to support poverty-reduction efforts, followed by a discussion of exactly how decision-makers can take action to support farmer access to VSS-compliant markets to support smallholders in poverty. Specifically, participants mentioned a need for more capacity building, access to technology and financing, diversity in agricultural operations, increased monitoring after adopting sustainable practices, and higher wages for farmers. They also pointed to the importance of market-specific analyses and the need to enhance the power and voice of small farmers, particularly those who lack bargaining power.  

“Access to [VSSs-compliant] markets is clearly linked to reducing poverty,” said Katiuska Rojas Flores de Kahn from Ministry of Agrarian Development and Irrigation of Peru. “The critical thinking and the interaction of the participants in the workshop were essential to use new perspectives to assess these problems.”

The final module looked at how VSSs can reduce financial risks to encourage investment in sustainable agriculture. In this module, participants shared their experiences with investors and identified challenges to attracting investment in their countries. Participants noted that investments in agriculture are constrained not only by social and environmental risks, but also by farmers’ lack of financial knowledge and information. This gap must be addressed by raising financial literacy amongst farmers and supporting their formal organization. Public and private sector actors also need to do more to create holistic and accessible financial plans and provide training and extension services to help farmers access financing and encourage investors to learn more about farmers’ needs and circumstance to tailor financial products.

“From the point of view of producers, VSSs are linked to economic viability and support their marketing efforts by differentiating products and building value,” said Danny Martínez García, Technical Specialist in Innovation and Territorial Development with IICA. Overall, this IICA–IISD training provided an opportunity to share knowledge and dialogue for participants from a diversity of sectors and countries about the potential of VSSs to support farmers in the Americas.

By the numbers

  • 242 total participants
  • 72 participants in each session (average)
  • Diverse range of participants from government, the private sector, academia, standards bodies, and not-for profit organizations
  • 31 of 35 countries of the Americas represented
  • Most attendees came from upper-middle-income countries (59%), followed by high-income (38%) and low-income countries (3%), and also included representatives from least-developed countries Nicaragua and El Salvador.
  • 95% of participants said the training enhanced their capacity and allowed them to share information and engage with other stakeholders.

The author would like to thank David Perri and Cristina Larrea for their contributions to the development of this blog.