Henk van Rikxoort

The agri-food ecosystem is now largely focussing on ensuring sustainability at all levels, from farm to fork and beyond. From efficient use of resources and preventing excessive and irreversible damage to the environment, to strengthening farmer livelihoods as a measure to tackle other socio-economic issues, and encouraging the private and public sectors to prioritise sustainability across board, significant steps in the right direction are being taken by all stakeholders along the supply chain, and by those in allied sectors. Our thought leader for the day talks us through the approaches to sustainability that enterprises are currently adopting and the impact it has had so far on the agri-food systems and the farmers dependent on agriculture for a livelihood.
In Conversation With

Henk van Rikxoort

Henk van Rikxoort is the Lead Farm Intelligence at the Rainforest Alliance. He is initiating and leading global innovation and ICT for development programs within the organisation. Currently, his main focus is farmgrow.org, an initiative that is expanding the use of individual digital farm development plans for cocoa producers in West Africa. Henk joined the Rainforest Alliance in 2013 and pioneered the climate change program as well as the first-mile program which grew into important elements of the organisation today. Before the Rainforest Alliance, he worked in agricultural, climate change, and development consulting. Henk holds an MSc in Rural Innovation and a BSc in Tropical Agriculture from Wageningen University.

How does satellite technology make the process of tracking sustainability measures efficient?

Henk van Rikxoort: The beauty of applying satellite tech to monitoring sustainability, such as land-use change, is in the scalability and reliability of it. Scalable, as we can monitor vast amounts of land and farms without having to deploy feet on the ground to areas that are often inaccessible and remote. Reliable, as the information is near real-time, has data on the entire population and not a sample, and is less prone to bias and interpretation compared to on the ground data collection.

Certification is becoming an industry standard today as consumers are becoming increasingly aware of social and environmental issues and the importance of certifications in addressing them. How have these certifications evolved in the last decade or so and what does the future look like?

Henk van Rikxoort: Third-party certification is indeed becoming more and more relevant for sectors working on making a transition towards sustainability. At the same time, the certification process itself is currently strongly evolving, integrating learnings and embracing new technologies. Certification of tomorrow will be more impactful as it is:
  • Evolving from a general approach to very specific and adaptive to different contexts, countries, crops and regions – so it becomes more relevant and effective
  • Evolving from a pass-fail method to recognising and rewarding step by step improvements
  • Evolving from paper-based systems in the field to digital and data-driven ones

Some of the conservation efforts begin with the smallholder farmers whose lives are intrinsically linked to the forests and biodiversity that surround them. What has your experience been like in driving a change among these farmers to ensure sustainable and climate-resilient practices?

Henk van Rikxoort: We have learned many lessons, top five of which that come to my mind are: 1. Living income for farmers first. Deforestation, child, and other forms of forced labour are to a large extent a side effect of the poor economic position of smallholders – let’s work on improving the income of farmers and we will make progress on other issues better and faster. 2. Change and improvements in agriculture are slow by default. We need to work with farmers on long term plans and relationships. 3. We need to move away from general guidelines and group training. The needs in the field call for farm-specific advisories coupled with personal coaching techniques to support farmers 1:1. 4. We are losing forest and green cover at a speed that is sickening. Let’s take the digital farm and forest mapping to scale, monitor deforestation with satellite tech, and work with implementers on the ground to turn the tide. 5. Consumer engagement and education on the challenges in origin and the need for sustainable products is important. End-markets drive the scale and speed of the transition towards sustainability.

Scientific research has identified that certification programs enhance both rural livelihoods and ecosystem health across a diversity of crops, farms, and countries. A few studies have also confirmed the positive impact that Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certification programs have had on forest quality and farmers respectively. Could you tell us how certified farms and its farmers improve over time compared to non-certified farms?

Henk van Rikxoort: Rainforest Alliance and UTZ-certified farmers adopt good and sustainable agricultural practices and are rewarded with a sustainability differential by the market for doing so. The incentive for farmers is working towards a more profitable and resilient farm over time. In addition, getting rewarded by buyers and building up a long-term relationship with these buyers is valuable. For the industry, it is important to work with farmers step by step on improvements and grow a healthy long-term business relationship while addressing sustainability. Measurable progress and learnings from the field are important for all actors involved in certification. Impact reports found, for example, that UTZ-certified coffee farmers in Colombia earned $1.14 per kg coffee compared to $0.69 of non-certified farmers. That is the benefit and importance of markets rewarding the work of farmers on sustainability in the field. In addition, a study found that Rainforest-Alliance-certified farmers had a 51% less loss of harvest during the coffee leaf rust outbreaks in Latin America. This is an encouragement that working with shading, diverse farms, and other good agricultural practices are effective on the ground.

Although several agribusinesses around the world have committed to ensuring traceable and sustainable supply chains, only a handful of them managed to achieve the goals. What are your recommendations for agribusinesses to prioritise sustainability and work to attain these goals?

Henk van Rikxoort: Sustainability is a journey and there are many companies out there that are making great progress. At the same time, we need more front-running businesses that will drive transitioning towards sustainable supply chains. I work with and have worked with companies that are very serious about sustainability and it is encouraging to see what these corporations are able to set in motion. At the same time, businesses are businesses and operate in a competitive environment; we cannot expect all from the private sector only. Governments need to get much more engaged and active in setting a level playing field and good policy and regulation for the better.

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