In a recent GFAR webinar, the Committee on Sustainability Assessment’s (COSA) teamed up with GFAR and the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) to “Brace for Impact”: together they examined the question of how to design effective measurement tools for the understanding, management and acceleration of development impacts.
The webinar was a Collective Action supported by GFAR Secretariat, an opportunity for COSA—a consortium of institutions fostering effective ways to measure and understand sustainability in the agri-food sector—to share its suite of innovative and very pragmatic and science-based approaches to perforance monitoring. The webinar boasted an all-time-record subscription of 412 people, with 133 participants coming online for the webinar.
Peter Casier of GFAR Secretariat led off the event and noted that in addition to the 3 institutions, we also had leading experts from government, academia, NGOs, and business to answer “how they measure impact” in their sustainability initiatives. Below are some key highlights and you can also watch the full webinar here.
Vera Espindola from Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture (SAGARPA) remarked how trust was an integral component to Mexico’s national programs. The Government’s partnership with COSA is designed to help it to more effectively target its interventions and to then get quick feedback from the field during rollout of programs. This is transformative because it enables tuning and adjustment of programs as they happen and not years later when it is too late to improve efforts. Getting data in a pragmatic manner also enables sharing outcomes with key stakeholders so the Government can be a catalyst for sectoral change, change that is based on sound scientific assessment.
Molly Laverty, Farmer Brothers’ Sustainability Director illustrated how their ability to generate innovative programs of Direct Trade with farmers in different countries depends on understanding the needs of those farming communities who are effectively partners in their business success. To understand the realities, the stories, and the actual impacts of their investments they engage indicators from the COSA library and work directly with organizations at origin to apply those indicators and generate functional data that helps drive the effectiveness of their investments.
COSA’s Measurement Systems Manager, Jessica Mullan, explained how COSA builds its tools to pragmatically understand sustainability by aligning with dozens of international norms and universally accepted practices from the SDGs to the ILO. Each indicator is the product of years and tens of thousands of field applications to ensure a comparable, solid, and scientifically valid indicator that form the basis of assessing sustainability with scientific rigor and transparency. Jessica also unveiled the low-cost methods associated with Performance Monitoring that offer simple technology and useful key indicators delivered in close to real time thus enabling better management of sustainability initiatives.
David Piza, the Director of Sustainability for a major roaster and the second largest importer of tea in North America (S&D Coffee and Tea) picked up this theme and lauded having these kinds of COSA measurement systems that enable his organization to view return-on-investment (ROI) not just from a financial perspective but also a social and environmental lens. To drive their business systems, it is vital that they can dedicate limited resources in the most effective way.
Conservation International’s Manager for Climate Change Adaptation in Farming Systems, Ruth Martínez described the innovative Landscape Measurement tools recently developed with COSA. She noted that these provide the ability to blend big data streams on factors such as deforestation with the explanatory micro data at farm level i.e. low productivity, large families, poverty, etc.) to create a more holistic sustainability picture. This ability to see trends and the causal relations facilitates the ability to influence the appropriate levers with policy or investment or targeted interventions.
COSA’s Keith Child explained the shift in many more research tools now available. He noted the trend toward blending research tools and better fitting those to the needs at hand. This is critical because of the delicate balance researchers must strike in order to collect data at scale, within complex systems, and in a reasonable amount of time.
David Thomas, Lead Facilitator of the Global Landscapes Forum within the CGIAR facilitated discussions and questions from among the participants. One of these, about the perennial challenge of the costs of evaluating impact, led COSA President Daniele Giovannucci to comment that while he agreed that costs were a major factor, nonetheless, “the only thing more expensive than doing an impact assessment is not doing one” and thus not knowing if your overall investment made sense or not.
One popular inquiry was about the roles of ecolabels or standards. Daniele emphasized that a recognized label or standard can be a useful tool to make a difference but that it usually cannot single handedly create sustainability at origin. In order to understand and thus affect sustainability, a multi-dimensional approach is needed. This is especially true across diverse contexts where one-size-fits-all approaches can be limited.
In closing, the event distilled some of the recent innovations in how to measure sustainability and the diverse ways these are being applied in real-world situations. The presenters highlighted that in order to learn and to be able to compare and discern what approaches or practices can be scale-able we also need to get the questions right and the best way to do that is to make use of time-tested, science-based indicators. This is now easy with access to a free library with hundreds of indicators at people’s fingertips. By identifying best practices and moving our research toward greater pragmatism, we can better serve the farmers and agricultural communities to identify the effective solutions that they need.
The recording of this GFAR webinar can be found here.
The Power Point presentations made during the webinar can be accessed here.
GFAR Secretariat also ran a Partner Spotlight on COSA during the week of 23-27 October 2017. Following are blog posts on the work COSA is doing in the area of measuring impact and sustainability:
If you’d like to contact any of the presenters directly, please send an email to info@theCOSA.org.