As Executive Director of UTZ, Han de Groot has overseen the growth of the organization from a relatively new player in 2010, to today being the world’s largest certification program for coffee and cocoa. Quite an expert, then, on the state of the global agricultural sector! He explains that certification has an incredible impact, but that certification alone is not enough to make sustainable farming the norm. That’s why UTZ expanded its strategy in 2016.
The role of certification
“Certification has been proven effective,” says Han. “UTZ is improving the lives of more than 1.3 million farmers and workers, and their families, all over the world.”
However, Han explains that many issues UTZ works on have causes beyond the farm level. “A huge proportion of the world’s farmers struggle to earn enough to support their families,” he says. “There are also structural issues to deal with such as child labor, gender inequality and low wages; and to top it all, there’s the massive problem of climate change.”
Han explains that these issues must be addressed in a systemic way with governments, civil society and the private sector. “Truly tackling these issues requires a combined effort from the world’s biggest companies and governments,” says Han.
From the farm to the sector level
So what does that mean for certification programs like UTZ? Take the issue of climate change. “Climate change is having a devastating effect for farmers around the world,” says Han. “Certification has an important role to play in helping farmers to adapt to the changes while mitigating their own contribution. But we would be naive to think that this is a full solution to the problem of climate change.”
“Likewise, we can try to stop child labor on UTZ certified farms, but to stop child labor from happening anywhere we need see the social, economic and political factors being addressed – the poverty, the lack of schools, and so on. Otherwise children will simply move to a different farm or a different industry. We already work with local communities, but we want to empower these communities to lobby for more structural change.”
How can UTZ contribute? Han de Groot:
With the growth of the UTZ program we have gained a stronger reputation and a bigger network, which brings along responsibility to take greater action to influence the sector agenda towards sustainability.
That’s why UTZ expanded its strategy in 2016. “The aim was to find new ways to work with market leading companies on sustainability,” explains Han, “as well as building the capacity of civil society to drive change.”
Empowering civil society
With funding from the Dutch government, UTZ launched its Sector Partnerships Program. This program is focusing on six issues: child labor, gender equality, living wages, climate change adaptation and water management, sustainable productivity, and farmer group strengthening (which is about enabling farmer groups to improve their internal management and influence in the supply chain).
“These are the most critical issues for farmers, whether they are certified or not,” says Han, “and the ones where we need to see change on a sector level.” Through this new program, UTZ focuses on strengthening the capacity of farmers (especially smallholders and female farmers) and NGOs, supporting them to influence policy makers towards sustainability.
There can be no doubt that the challenges in the agricultural sector are huge, but Han is optimistic that we can tackle them by pulling together with other organizations and companies. “Now more than ever, partnerships are the key to change,” he concludes. “Only by working together can we create a world where sustainable farming is the norm.”
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