Two years ago, during one of my seminar tours to South Africa, a group from the Woolworths supermarket chainattended our four day Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture Course. Immediately following the course the principal of this privately owned organisation (not the Australian Woolworths) decided that all of his growers should learn to grow biologically, whether they liked it or not, and so began a revolution in large scale food production. It was a unique experience, over the next couple of years, to train growers who had not necessarily chosen to attend the course, but we managed to win all of them over and inspire some enthusiasm for this new, sustainable approach. In November 2008 Woolworths officially launched their new initiative calling it “Farming for The Future”. They have combined NTS concepts with Soil Foodweb initiatives and produced a set of standards that allows an auditing process to formalise this new growing system. It was something of a wake up call for me to recognise how quickly change could be initiated if it was driven from the top.
For 15 years we have been working with one farmer or one group of farmers at a time to try to initiate meaningful change and suddenly I can see how much more rapidly this thing could work. Woolworths have agreed to share their results so in a few more months we should have an economic model to introduce throughout the world. During my last visit to SA the Woolworths’ executive who has been driving the initiative noted that there had already been several positive changes. These changes included increased shelf life and improved taste and that was before the system had been fully adopted. It has always amazed me that the supermarkets don’t widely embrace this approach, if only from a bottom line perspective, as there are tremendous savings associated with doubling the shelf life. When the marketing edge associated with supplying food with more flavour and ess chemicals is also factored in, it becomes even more of a no brainer. My last 4 day course in South Africa was attended by eight representatives from other supermarket chains so it appears that they are already aware that a competitor is gaining an edge. The Woolworths’ standards include obvious things like the need for yearly soil tests and regular leaf tests to monitor crop quality but they also include requirements for in-field monitoring and soil life regeneration using compost teas and inoculums. There is a 100 point system to regulate the use of chemicals. The chemicals are classed according to their toxicity and ascribed a numerical rating. It’s basically 100 points and you’re out, so there is every motivation to reduce your chemical inputs wherever possible. There are also requirements for the management of waste water and several other innovative concepts. This is an exciting project generated by an award-winning company who are recognised worldwide for their sustainable initiatives.