Science could spur growth in sustainable industry

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Copyright: Aubrey Wade / Panos

Speed read

  • Firms are increasingly willing to invest in sustainable development projects
  • These projects can protect landscapes and ensure security of supply for companies
  • Scientists can provide data and models to support private spending decisions

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[LONDON] Private investors are interested in financing sustainable land use projects and scientists could provide the evidence to help them do so, a meeting heard last week.

The participants said public donors are not doing enough to fund sustainable development projects in agriculture and forestry that both support local livelihoods and protect endangered landscapes. But private funders have the money — and an increasing willingness — to invest in this, the meeting in London, United Kingdom, heard.

The Global Landscapes Forum event brought together private financers, such as investment bankers and corporations, with representatives from public bodies, development practitioners and researchers.

Bernard Giraud, a senior sustainability advisor for the food company Danone, gave the example of a sustainable dairy farm project financed by the Livelihoods Fund for Family Farming, set up with food company Mars in February. The project involves about 30,000 farmers in Kenya who produce milk whilst trying to keep the impact on the land to a minimum. The milk is then processed locally to make products for Danone.

Peter Holmgren, director-general of the non-profit Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said companies can help protect landscapes by financing long-term projects. He added that firms have an interest in sustainable production to ensure security of supply and gain their customers’ approval.

“A lot of land use research is about biophysical aspects, but it is not always connected to an economic analysis.”

Peter Holmgren, CIFOR

“There is a very high interest in making sure investments are sustainable,” Holmgren said, mentioning the example of palm oil cultivation, which is under intense consumer scrutiny.
CIFOR organised the 10 June event with partners including the World Bank, US charity The Nature Conservancy and investment bank Credit Suisse. The organisers now aim to draw up a five- to ten-year road map for creating global funds for sustainable spending on landscapes that bring financial, social and environmental returns.

This is due to be presented at the next Global Landscapes Forum alongside the UN’s COP 21 climate conference in Paris, France, in December.

The London meeting heard how scientists can provide evidence to encourage spending.

“There is a huge need for comparative science to look at different options for land use,” Holmgren told SciDev.Net. “A lot of land use research is about biophysical aspects, but it is not always connected to an economic analysis.”

Alain Billand, who runs the Environments and Societies department of French agricultural research organisation CIRAD, said scientists can provide data and models to support investment decisions. They study relevant topics such as “how to produce cocoa without destroying the forest” or “how to measure sustainability”, he told SciDev.Net.

But some scientists will be wary about doing research for corporate purposes, he said. “We don’t work with everyone or for any end,” he said.

Billand explained that as a research centre funded largely by the French government, CIRAD’s aim is to “improve the life quality of rural populations, not to increase the turnover of companies”.

To prevent the exploitation of vulnerable farming communities and the environment, CIRAD has internal structures, including an ethics committee, to decide whether and how its researchers get involved in projects with external organisations.

“Our ethical position is that we have to balance decision-making. Industry and finance are powerful, while local populations are often not well organised,” Billand said.