On December 8, 2015, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF) hosted a briefing on work being done by U.S. corporations to promote sustainable agricultural practices throughout the global farming community. Among others, the Rainforest Alliance and Coca-Cola participated on this panel.

Following is an excerpt of the conversation that took place between Coca-Cola's Global Procurement Director Ben Jordan and Rainforest Alliance’s Sr. Vice President of Programs, Planning and Assessment, Joshua Tosteson.  

What are your respective goals in the area of sustainable agriculture?

Coca-Cola (BJ): Coca-Cola has established a goal to more sustainably source our agricultural ingredients by 2020. To accomplish our goal, we are embedding sustainability into ingredient-procurement decisions; developing and implementing crop-specific programs to enhance the economic well-being of farming communities; building industry-wide coalitions to gain alignment; and driving change through key partnerships.

We aim to do so while simultaneously promoting women’s entrepreneurship, water stewardship and the minimization of our total carbon footprint. Partnerships with our suppliers, customers and NGO leaders like the Rainforest Alliance are important to the success of this work. 

Rainforest Alliance (JT): Our priorities are pretty similar. First and foremost, we aim to conserve landscapes and get out ahead of ecosystem destruction. In parallel, we are focusing on enhancing the livelihoods and resilience of farming communities, as the only way to ensure real sustainability on the ground is to deliver a compelling value proposition to farmers. Finally, we work with companies like Coca-Cola to grow and deepen their sustainability commitments, leveraging these commitments to transform land-use practices at scale. Our standards and training efforts are based on a holistic approach that covers the environmental, social and economic elements of sustainability, including farm productivity and profitability, climate change, gender, water stewardship and worker health in safety.

What target crops or commodities are most important to your agricultural sustainability work?

Coca-Cola (BJ): For Coca-Cola, there are a number of priority commodities that we focus on in meeting our sustainable procurement standards. Around sweeteners – sugar cane, sugar beet, corn and stevia. Around fruit – lemons, oranges, mangos, apples and grapes. Other top commodities we are working to more sustainably source include tea and coffee beans, soy, palm oil and forest products like pulp and paper.

Rainforest Alliance (JT): At the Rainforest Alliance, we have to date focused on cocoa, bananas and other fruit, coffee, tea, and forest products, with our certification and training programs achieving meaningful global shares of total production in these areas. In addition to these commodities, we are taking aim at palm oil, cattle and other major deforestation drivers and livelihood crops as part of our new strategic plan.   

Specifically, what are Coca-Cola’s guiding principles around sustainable agriculture?

Coca-Cola (BJ): At Coca-Cola, we see three key principles that lay the foundation for “more sustainably sourced” expectations. First, farm management systems – harvest and post-harvest handling, reproductive material identity, selection and handling, management systems, record keeping and transparency and of course business integrity. Second, environment – water management, energy and climate protection, natural habitat and ecosystem conservation, soil management and crop protection. Third, human and workplace rights – freedom of association or collective bargaining, the strict prohibition of child labor, discrimination, fair work hours and wages, the guarantee of a healthy and safe workplace and traditional community rights.

What does the Rainforest Alliance see as the key benefits for farmers of adopting sustainable agricultural practices?

Rainforest Alliance (JT):  Our comprehensive standards provide a framework for farmers to manage their farms in an organized, professional way. We find that the most important, immediate direct result is greater productivity as resources are utilized more efficiently with inputs and outputs more visible for them. Over time, the more long term benefits of sustainable farming, including well-managed natural resources, biodiversity and water conservation, and climate resilience become apparent. Farmers also often cite the importance of a cleaner environment for themselves, their children and their communities, as well as the stronger connectivity to markets and supply chains.

More and more global brands, like Coca-Cola, are setting targets on more sustainable sourcing. What are the positive impacts?

Rainforest Alliance (JT): Companies like Coca-Cola have seen that investments in sustainable supply chains translate into reduced risk as well as long-term value creation. The leading companies – the ones who really get this – are raising the bar and making significant investments in sustainability at the origins of their supply chains. These early movers are seeing positive impacts related to natural resource conservation and regeneration, increased net income and improvements in social conditions and overall well-being. These benefits strengthen the supply chains on which their businesses are fundamentally based.

Coca-Cola (BJ): We know there are benefits to farmers in doing things the “right” way. This means productivity and yield improvements, as we see with the China program we are doing with WWF and Cargill in corn supply. It might mean less inputs, like fertilizer, which programs like Field to Market in the U.S. are proving out. Sustainability gives a new quality to our strategic supplier relationships and precompetitive collaboration, as we have experienced with the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) platform for sweeteners in Europe. It could mean a more productive piece of land in general, and a better environment and community. Or, it might mean better connections with customers and the “demand” part of the equation.

What do you see as priorities for sustainable agriculture moving forward?

Coca-Cola (BJ): Smallholder agriculture is a major priority as we move beyond initial work with large, leading suppliers in priority sourcing regions. In smallholder agriculture, often the issues are bigger than we, a supplier or a farmer can tackle individually. This is where multi-stakeholder collaborations will be even more critical.

Rainforest Alliance (JT): I agree with Ben. The challenges facing small farmers transcend what any one company or organization can do alone, and demand broad coalitions to scale up solutions. In order to achieve a deforestation-free, climate resilient agriculture system, we need to bring significant, long term investments to small farmers on the ground. To catalyze these investments, industry must continue to commit to rigorous sustainable agriculture standards and practices, tailored to the needs of specific supply chains, geographies and crops. There needs to be a continued focus on sustainable intensification, as well as the broader environmental, economic, and social outcomes - associated with strong, independent, third party programs that are needed in order to ensure true, verifiable sustainability on the ground.

Industry and companies like Coca-Cola must continue to raise the bar. To all, I would say – lead by example, and bring others along! More sustainable sourcing standards need to meet third-party standards, along with broad stakeholder engagement.