The origins of things
In our increasingly globalized economy the origins of the things we eat, drink and use throughout the day, and what it takes to get them to us, are often opaque. Bringing transparency back into supply chains is one of Grounded’s main goals—we want our customers to know how the wild and cultivated ingredients we offer are produced, and we want to be clear about the impact these products have on the ecologies and people involved. We also want producers to be rewarded for meeting the highest environmental and labour standards.
But, which standards? And, hang on, who sets them? Promoting excellent products at a fair price isn’t only about conforming to fair trade and organic certification processes. We work with producers at different stages of their regenerative journey, and we recognise the long-term process of transforming an operation—not to mention the huge cost to those pioneering enterprises in economically depressed regions. We want to make this transition attractive and accessible, while ensuring that people and products are doing what they claim to.
Defining our course
Over the last few years Grounded has developed a set of guidelines to monitor and evaluate the environmental and social impacts of the operating companies (OpCos) that we create to support the production, processing and marketing of regeneratively-produced and sustainably wild-harvested ingredients. To develop these criteria we have drawn on the valuable work of other organisations focused on ethics and sustainability in sourcing, including the Union for Ethical BioTrade, Commonland, FairWild and the Organic and Regenerative Organic farming standards.
Labels and certifications aimed at reinserting the real costs of ingredients into the equation for consumers have proliferated. We don’t intend to further crowd this field, but to offer transparency around our sourcing process to our customers, as well as to producers interested in accessing a fair market through Grounded. Because greenwashing has so diluted our language, often allowing companies to hide behind clever wording or the casual, unmerited use of terms like ‘sustainable’, ‘natural’ and ‘ethical’, we are especially careful about defining the terms we use. We want to be explicit about what we mean when we talk about regenerative agriculture, sustainable wild-harvesting, and risk and value-sharing.
This is a salient moment to share our sourcing rubric more widely as Grounded is working to expand its ability to mainstream equitable value chains. Until this year, we have only sourced and sold ingredients from landscapes where we have been actively involved in establishing or managing production through our OpCos. Today we are building partnerships with a network of independent producers throughout southern Africa, increasing our offering of high-quality, ethically-produced ingredients, while expanding fair-price markets for a greater number of producers. We have had to adjust our guidelines to better evaluate the environmental and social impacts of these independent producers; and we will continue to adapt and improve them as we learn by doing, listening to the input from our independent producer partners.
We want to be explicit about what we mean when we talk about regenerative agriculture, sustainable wild-harvesting, and risk and value-sharing.
Guidelines have allowed Grounded to responsibly broaden the scope of our offering to customers– encouraging excellent farming practices without compromising our values.
Credit: Gareth Hubbard
There are four components to our sourcing guidelines that help us measure the work of our independent producers: regenerative agriculture, sustainable wild harvesting, risk and value sharing, quality and compliance. Twice a year we use these to evaluate our OpCos, while independent producers are assessed as part of our onboarding process and reevaluated annually. Based on answers to a series of differently weighted questions, producers are given an overall ranking.
In a few instances, ‘Zero tolerance’ questions mean that we cannot source from producers whose practices do not meet our guidelines. Questions considered ‘Critical’ indicate areas where we expect producers to work hard to become compliant in the nearest possible future, while ‘Continuous improvement’ questions are important for producers to work towards over a timeline of years. Producers scoring 70% or higher are considered ‘Star performers’; those scoring between 50-70% are considered ‘On the rise’; and we see producers scoring between 30-50% to be promising partners with some ‘Work to do.’
This grading system assists us internally, but we also see it as the basis for communicating with our customers and for imagining, together, a truly thriving agrifood system. Looking ahead, every product we offer will be accompanied by its origin story along with the condensed details of its production. We hope to promote a more nuanced conversation that recognises the commitment it takes for individual producers to adhere to ethical and sustainable principles, and resist the pressures of the larger food system that does not. Producers do not need to be perfect exemplars of regenerative farming or sustainable wild-harvesting—our mission is to support producers in their transition towards regenerative principles, and build the footprint of viable regenerative agriculture and sustainable wild-harvest operations in rural Africa and beyond. Seeing practices improve over time is more important to us than only sourcing from the most advanced producers.
Seeing practices improve over time is more important to us than only sourcing from the most advanced producers.
A deep-dive into our guidelines: regenerative agriculture
As the implications of the climate crisis and ecological degradation become clearer, sustainability is no longer a sufficient benchmark for agricultural systems. Regenerative farming goes beyond organic or sustainable, aiming instead to create a new agro-ecosystem that revitalises soils and continually restores itself. The farmer, the soil, and biodiversity are all simultaneously enriched, while the carbon stored in these healthier soils also contributes to climate change mitigation. Good news all around—but not a simple undertaking. Establishing fully regenerative farming operations takes time and perseverance. Over the last seven years of working with farmers in their transition towards regenerative agriculture, Grounded has developed and refined the criteria we work towards to include farming practices, farm planning and management, and strategies to manage impact on the landscapes surrounding farm operations.
Credit: Designed by Katerina Sonntagova
A regenerative farm is premised on a web of interrelations. This approach to agriculture favours complexity over one-size-fits-all solutions: change is incremental, and planning and management are key to this process. Farm diaries and reference systems for each physical area of the operation are important aids, and we prioritise the use of soil conservation management plans, as well as more comprehensive farm plans with goals for both the operation and the wider landscape. For the latter, it is important to map the natural areas surrounding each farm and identify critical ecosystem functions. Buffer zones between the farm and sensitive conservation areas can then be used to mitigate impact on surrounding natural areas, and carrying capacities for natural rangelands calculated to ensure that livestock grazing systems are managed appropriately for each landscape.
This approach to agriculture favours complexity over one-size-fits-all solutions.
In terms of regenerative practice, we are interested in the pursuit of crops that are adapted to local climates and soils wherever possible. We look for continuous improvement in the use of no-till, cover and intercropping, crop rotation, rotational grazing, and composting practices, as well as in the implementation of water-efficient irrigation systems. Where any non organic-certified pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or chemical fertilisers are still used, producers should be working towards limited and rapidly decreasing reliance. In these instances clear record-keeping is critical, and we are committed to transparently representing agrochemical use involved in the production of any products that we offer. We have zero tolerance for the use of glyphosate (the basis of the herbicide Roundup) or other banned agrochemical products.
Regulating wild harvesting practices is essential to the preservation of species and the fair representation of communities who hold the indigenous knowledge.
Sustainable wild harvesting
The idea of wild harvesting sounds appealing—natural, old-fashioned, perhaps healthier—but in reality it is an inherently fraught practice. We’ve become acquainted with the environmental, social and cultural risks associated with wild harvesting through our work with one of our OpCos, the Langkloof Honeybush Company (LKHBCo). “Unregulated wild harvesting is a big problem for the environment but also for the people who hold the traditional knowledge of wild harvesting,” says Evert Greeff, operating manager at LKHBCo. “They are the ones who get pushed out of the value chain…They possess the insight and skills that make the industry possible, and too often they’re not acknowledged or fairly compensated.”
We are committed to helping producers create species-management and wild-harvesting plans aimed at preserving biodiversity and functioning ecological systems, while honouring indigenous knowledge and knowledge-holders. To do this, the environmental, social and cultural impacts of this practice need to be evaluated, carefully monitored and periodically assessed for vulnerability. Assessments should be comprehensive, looking at everything from the species’ abundance, distribution, and conservation status, to sustainable collection practices and optimum sustainable yield estimates; as well as the number of uses, users, and commercial demand.
Because the regulation of wild harvesting is important and evolving, sometimes best-practice in this arena is steps ahead of government minimum requirements. Operations must not only have all the required permits, but also species-specific management plans that include monitoring protocols, demarcated collection areas and purchasing schedules adapted to reduce the pressure on ecosystems. We look for continuous improvement in the implementation of wider ecological landscape management plans, and in the development of long-term contracts or agreements with wild harvesters whenever possible. Wild harvesting rarely provides stable, all-year income for harvesters, but landscape maintenance and management practices can be implemented year-round to create more sustainable livelihoods, while also helping to conserve and restore vulnerable ecosystems.
Sharing Risk and Value
Conversations around agricultural systems often focus on environmental implications, but we believe ecologically sound approaches to cultivation and wild harvesting can only be sustained in the long term if they are financially viable for all the people involved. Farmers, wild-harvesters and labourers are the most vulnerable groups in the value chain, carrying the responsibility for the success or failure of a crop, yet they are typically the least rewarded by the market.
Ecologically sound approaches to cultivation and wild harvesting can only be sustained in the long term if they are financially viable for all the people involved.
We are committed to developing transparent value chains and ensuring that farmers and harvesters receive the benefits of higher prices captured on the market. We encourage profit-sharing mechanisms that include producers, harvesters and labourers, and look for the inclusion of these stakeholders in operational decision-making wherever possible. The mitigation of risk through diverse farming and harvesting systems is another important tool for producers, and we see ongoing improvement in the provision of training and skills development for all employees as an important means to build resilience in rural communities.
Furthermore, as a purveyor of products indigenous to southern Africa, the equitable provision of biodiversity access and use is a critical and evolving aspect of Grounded’s work. Guided by the Nagoya Protocol measures, established in 2010 to ensure international compliance with Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) principles, we build in mechanisms to ensure communities who hold the traditional knowledge of these products are treated as partners. As the implementation of these measures develops and regulations and laws are clarified in participating countries, we will continue to work with our producer partners to improve alignment with ABS.
The work of both encouraging and monitoring our partners on their path toward excellent ecological and labour practice, is never done.
Credit: Gareth Hubbard
Transforming our agrifood system into one that is built on principles of regeneration, transparency and equitable risk and value-sharing is a tall order, but we are excited about the journey and the many independent producers we are meeting along the way. Perfect, we like to remind ourselves, is the enemy of the good. The producers we work with are trying hard to integrate these principles in their own ways, in their own complex contexts; we want to celebrate each step they take towards these goals as an act of resistance to the larger, unsustainable agrifood system we seek to change.
Perfect, we like to remind ourselves, is the enemy of the good.
If you have questions about our sourcing guidelines, want to share your feedback or are interested in purchasing ingredients from Grounded or becoming an independent producer partner, get in touch.
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