Responsible soy – towards a holistic approach

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By Malika Virah-Sawmy, project coordinator, sustainable soy and beef supply chains

Sustainability problems are known to be complex, but some are harder to crack than others. If climate change is the ultimate complex problem, the soy challenge does not lag far behind.

Rising global demand for commodities such as soy and beef is causing major changes in land use and threatening biodiversity. Producers, traders, the conservation community and others are trying to understand the impacts and risks – and develop solutions that will lead to sustainable supply chains.

Like many complex problems, the soy issue sparks hot debate and some polarised views of both the problems and the solutions. The Round Table on Responsible Soy’s 2018 Annual Conference (RT13) was refreshing as, despite the polarity, it allowed those involved in the sector to air their views in an open and respectful way. Nonetheless, as I listened, I could not help feeling that the conference was more a debate than a dialogue – dialogue being the intention. I began to ask myself what would be needed to achieve a dialogue that allows all parties to move towards the round table’s ambition for more collective action.

Whilst a debate explores different views, transformative dialogue is a reflective process, enquiring about those viewpoints with the aim of moving towards a shared representation of the problem and a vision of potential solutions.

Take a simple question: is soy the driver of deforestation or not? Evidence can be used on both sides of the argument – those calling for the soy sector to act more responsibly, and those saying it is doing enough. For example, the results in a forthcoming scientific paper that I coordinated between researchers, the Luc Hoffmann Institute and WWF to better assess the biodiversity footprint of soy indicate that in the Cerrado, during the period 2000 to 2015, it is the combination of a range of land-use including planted pastures, soy and other crops that generate most of the biodiversity impact. However, soy had the greatest biodiversity impact per unit of land because soy had expanded to pristine forest frontiers like Matopiba.

So where does this take us? Soy cultivation is the direct driver of biodiversity loss at the forest frontiers, but it is exacerbated by other drivers in forest-agriculture landscapes. This argument was used by each side at RT13, reflecting the complexity of the problem and the challenge of finding solutions. It also shows that we need new approaches that allow us to appreciate why stakeholders hold certain views of the soy ‘system’. Presenting only the evidence of whether soy is the driver or not will only reinforce preconceived ideas, and not shift them, as we saw at this year’s round table.

Similarly, I heard many argue that while the demand for cheap meat is often ‘manufactured’ into the soy problem, it is in fact an endemic problem of capitalism. Land speculation and its impact on deforestation is also contrived as a soy problem – but can be argued to be symptomatic of the lack of market incentive from European and Asian consuming countries to support Brazilian soy farmers to act differently.

Does it matter whether we perceive the problem as a farmer’s problem or as a larger system problem? Yes, it does – because the quality of collective action will depend on how we integrate different perspectives with an open mind and open heart. If seen only as a farmer’s problem, retailers that want change in their supply chains will put pressure on farmers. If seen both as a Brazilian land opportunity challenge as well as a cheap meat challenge, then perhaps stakeholders can meet each other on an equal playing field. And from here, co-created solutions that are often deeply transformative are given space to emerge.

So then, what helps create an open mind, open heart and open will? Otto Scharmer calls this a shift from ego-system to eco-system awareness – an awareness that extends to everyone in the room. Groups that begin to feel and act from such awareness are using all their human capacities: curiosity, compassion and collective creativity.

Role play for collaborative conservation planning. Image: WWF/Luc Hoffmann Institute

One approach that I have been using with collaborator Claude Garcia to generate more curiosity, compassion, and collective creativity in natural resource management is though role-play exercises. Both cooperative and playfully competitive, such games have been used in the development field to help participants explore the roles of trust, knowledge, communication and conflict in a supportive and friendly environment. As the game unfolds, players observe, experiment and devise rules to resolve the tension between their competing demands. It is a powerful way to change people’s expectations about system behaviour, potentially paving the way for cooperation based on a shared understanding of the system and stakeholders’ constraints and challenges. We are currently field testing the first soy role-play game as part of a project being carried out by the Luc Hoffmann Institute, WWF and a consortium of universities.

Another tool we use with collaborator Angela Guerrero and colleagues from the University of Queensland is building and sharing ‘mental models’ that stakeholders hold about the soy system. A mental model – of an individual or organisation – is formed based on beliefs, knowledge, experiences and values. Bringing out and discussing different mental models can deepen our understanding of why people think the way they do and the reasons for their choices, as well as challenge assumptions about an issue.

As we roll out those approaches that stimulate curiosity and compassion in the soy space, I would love to witness a continued shift from an ego-system model to a real eco-system mindset. I believe this is going to help business actors lead us to define and embrace creative, compelling solutions to one of the biggest conservation challenges we face.

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is transitioning to become a new entity, a Geneva-based foundation, with a new brand and name, Unearthodox. You are warmly invited to continue the journey with us and are now being redirected to