Guatemala coffee farmer


Our food and agriculture systems face unprecedented change. COVID has provided us with a rehearsal of the scale of disruption that is possible. In the first of this three-part series on starting or recalibrating a robust sustainability plan, The Committee on Sustainability Assessment, COSA, looks at resilience in agri-food systems. 

Sustainability is engaged in many familiar ways: climate change and deforestation, gender and inclusivity, living incomes and wages, regeneration and water conservation, or child and forced labor. But our understanding of resilience is much less evolved. We need to change that. And we need to change that fast. 

From climate change to volatile markets, the world’s smallholder farmers face a staggering array of risks. The ability to overcome disaster and setbacks is vital to the survival and well-being of farm families and rural communities. Likewise, this is necessary for the viability of many supply chains. 

We define resilience as the capacity of people, communities, or systems to prepare for and to react to stressors and shocks in ways that limit vulnerability and promote their sustainability.

From “Simpler Resilience Measurement: Tools to Diagnose and Improve How Households Fare in Difficult Circumstances from Conflict to Climate Change”. COSA 2017.

One key to managing resilience is the reliable understanding of the key resilience factors at the most critical supply points. In most cases, the farmer level is a critical point and a central fulcrumIt is there that monitoring can generate actionable knowledge that influences performance and outcomes. Today, some leading companies are taking advantage of technology developments that make these possible quickly and at less cost than ever before.

Like any other critical business decision, resilience investments should be informed by the factors that are directly affecting a company’s suppliers. We can now reasonably calculate the financial and non-financial ROI of such investments. It is important to do that, not only because your CFO would prefer it, but because it will help target your limited resources better to address what matters most.

How resilience data worked in Guatemala

A recent study published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)1 using COSA indicators and data on Guatemalan coffee producers impacted by the leaf rust crisis offers evidence of how an investment approach that enhances both short-term and longer-term capacities can benefit coffee producers and their communities to be more resilient.

Historically, understanding resilience has been complicated and very expensive. Working alongside institutional partners (see below) and the Resilience Measurement, Evidence, and Learning Community of Practice, COSA distilled the global best practices in the field. It then streamlined and tested them so that many more people and organizations can now use and understand basic resilience metrics, a vital component of poverty reduction and future-proofing our agri-food systems. Recent applications by the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in challenging environments such as Sudan demonstrate the practicality of this approach.

The study looked at the negative impact of the leaf rust shock on household well-being and the strategic role of resilience in mitigating the challenges to this major crop. 

The researchers found that several concrete factors accounted for building the strong response of the more resilient farmers to the crisis. They also suggest what factors will impact farmers for lasting, systems-level resilience in the longer term. 

Those who best weathered the crisis shared common factors: livelihood diversification, access to credit, good soil and water conservation practices, and integrated pest management practices. For longer-term resilience, the researchers found access to technology and education of the head of household to be “the factors that matter the most”. Finally, at the systems level, they found that access to electricity and water and active inclusion (voting power) in producer organizations would allow these farmers greater ability to make lasting changes.  

3 key facets to understand resilience

  • Absorptive capacity is the ability to reduce both risk of exposure to shocks and stressors and to absorb the impacts of shocks in the short term
  • Adaptive capacity is the ability to respond to longer-term social, economic, and environmental change.
  • Transformative capacity represents the ability to enhance governance and enable conditions that make households and communities more resilient. In other words, transformative capacity refers to system-level changes that enable a more lasting resilience.

Resilience data points out strengths and weaknesses and provides a clear direction for effectively targeting resources to help farmers and communities prepare for and react to stressors and shocks in ways that limit vulnerability and promote sustainability. The addition of a few key metrics that are monitored regularly can be achieved at a lower cost than commissioning a full-scale impact assessment and yet retain reasonable scientific rigor. 

Stronger resilience for farmers and their communities will be even more necessary as global attention turns to the adaptation of agricultural systems. A World Resources Institute study suggests it is time to advance transformative adaptation through investment since “mounting ecosystem degradation will undermine the ability of farmers, fishers, and herders to rely on traditional ways of managing climate variability and other risks.” 

Farmer resilience alone is not necessarily enough to ensure long-term viability, but it is a critical component of the immediate need to understand and manage fundamental risks. When the factors contributing to a farmer’s resilience are understood, companies can target investments in the key drivers that enable households and communities to better face shocks and prepare adequate response plans. 

In our next article, we will look at measuring performance in order to take the pulse on risks over time. 

For more information, see: “The wisdom of adding a resilience strategy to sustainability programs”  and “Guatemala coffee in crisis: a lesson on resilience.”

1.  “Coffee in crisis offers a lesson in resilience: evidence from Guatemala.” Serfilippi, de los Rios, D’Errico, FAO 2020

Photo source: Counter Culture Coffee | Flickr

This article was provided by the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA)

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