The Sweeter Side of Sustainability - An Interview with Mars


Photo courtesy of http://candychocolicio.us

As you may have read earlier, we recently partnered with Mars in our largest post industrial collection agreement. That means that packaging for more then 20 brands that were imperfect or no longer current will find new use and life, when they were otherwise done. Mars, you may be surprised to know, has made a deep commitment to being a sustainable company. I had the privilege of talking with Howard-Yana Shapiro, Global Director Plant Science and External Research at Mars and Foudner of Seeds of Changes, about their ambitious goal of 200,000 tons of sustainably certified cocoa by 2020, their open book mapping of tree genomes for non GMO improvement of trees in our changing climate, and a term I'd never heard of, agroecology.

Learn from this Fulbright scholar why Mars is so focused on sustainability, how Seeds of Change was able to stay on track after it became a part of Mars, and how his expertise and focus on environmental responsibility is influencing one the world's largest food and beverage manufacturers. Tom Szaky: How will UTZ Certified insure that all cocoa is certified? Not just the source overall, but each actual ton? How frequently do they monitor the same place?

Howard-Yana Shapiro: The UTZ CERTIFIED program is based on the UTZ CERTIFIED Code of Conduct: a set of social, economic and environmental criteria for responsible growing practices and efficient farm management. Independent certifiers conduct annual inspections to ensure producers comply with the requirements of the UTZ CERTIFIED Code of Conduct.

Certification can make a real difference to farmers because they receive training and support that in turn results in improved productivity and more profitable cocoa farms. The proof isn’t just in the monitoring but will also be seen by the resulting higher yields. Improved farming techniques and materials should at least double the yield over the next 5-7 years and it’s my personal opinion that we can triple this in a decade.

For more detail on UTZ processes, see their website http://www.utzcertified.org.
TS:What are some obstacles/pleasant surprises you've had on the journey to helping Mars become more sustainable?

HS:Mars has always worked towards a sustainable future. Being a privately held company we have been allowed the freedom to make these decisions.

Sustainability is a long term process and I believe that it’s a clear and unique benefit of this family owned company, in which you have the freedom to take a long term view.

There is an awareness throughout the whole company - from the owners through each individual associate - that what we do today has an impact on our future and each person takes personal responsibility for making Mars a sustainable company. Our associates are beginning to take personal ownership at every level, which is really exciting. Each person has a role to play and everyone is thinking about how they can make a difference to the planet.

Some of these changes are small but all are significant – for example recommendations from an associate in a plant could (and has) changed an entire manufacturing process.

Sustainability is not just planting trees; it goes so much further than this. It extends to every aspect of our business and it’s part of the heart and soul of Mars.

TS: Would you say the purchase of Seed of Change by Mars has been a positive one? Anything you'd have done differently? What recommendations would you have for food/agricultural companies in relation to being bought/acquired by a major corporation?

HS: There’s only one thing that counts in the whole scenario and that’s the people you’ll be dealing with, it’s all about trust. They wanted to buy the company, the intelligence, the ambition, the people and not just the brand.

We realized that Mars believed in us and could help us achieve our vision – they gave us the scale and the ability to get organic, ethically sourced food out to the mainstream audience.

The important thing was that Mars values were, and are, very close to my own. Mars realized the value of organic food for the future - they realized the global consumer was moving in this direction. We became a member of a portfolio of incredibly well thought out brands.

The things that I stood for, both ethically and scientifically were never compromised. It meant that very quickly I was inside helping influence the overall corporate agenda. My voice is heard within Mars and was from the start.

We were embraced because of our views. The mixing of cultures was like a hand in a glove – we trusted each other and respected each other for what we did.

Science and technology are at the core of Mars, Incorporated and I’ve been allowed, as one of many scientists, to take on many challenges looking at how we become more sustainable moving forwards, pushing the frontiers of learning.

TZ: How do you plan to have enough cocoa to have a consistent supply for your 2020 100,000 ton annual goal?

HS: The 100,000 tonnes is a portion of our global need. We’ve committed to sourcing 100,000 tonnes from Rainforest Alliance and another 100,000 from UTZ. We will need to work with other certifying agencies to secure our total requirements.

We’re also inviting the rest of the industry to join us and work together towards the broad adoption of sustainable cocoa farming practices. We need to do this together because it will benefit everyone.

We’ve made a large commitment to certified cocoa and we invite everyone to join us. The farmers, governments, NGOs, suppliers and processors all along the supply chain and other chocolate companies – we all need to work together. We agree this is an ambitious goal, but we think it’s achievable.

If this really achieves what we hope it will achieve, this will change the global supply chain for one of the top ten traded agricultural commodities in the world.

TZ: Will the suppliers chosen be Mars only, or will other producers have a chance to benefit from your efforts to increase organic, sustainably grown cocoa?

HS: Actually, Mars is investing resources in the training and materials specifically to interest a broad base of farmers to utilize sustainable cocoa farming practices. We call this ‘farmers first’. We know this is an investment in building a foundation that will grow and benefit the entire industry.

We have a goal of 100% certified cocoa by 2020 – we hope and anticipate the entire industry will have moved by then. We hope that all cocoa across the industry will be sourced in a sustainable way by then. Any farmer or supplier can participate in the certified, sustainably grown cocoa process. We believe once the farmers see the benefits and that there is a market for certified cocoa, more and more will participate, which means more certified cocoa for everyone.

TS: Can you elaborate what Agroecology is, and how it's relevant to consumers/business?

HS: I would say agroecology is another building block towards sustainability. Many people have written books on this, with differing definitions.

It is generally concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices. For me, it must also work environmentally at the small scale as well as the more broad ecological aspect. And I feel it must have a cultural element too, beyond the standard economic, social and environmental considerations.

TS: Would the trees that result from your tree genome project be considered GMO? What would you say to people who have an issue with GMO crop based foods, in relation to this project?

HS: Our sequencing of the cocoa genome gives us the full toolbox for decision making on the conventional breeding of cacao trees. Learning from the genome we extrapolate what gives rise to disease reception/invasion of the plant and what gives defense against pathogens.

We’re taking the cocoa genome and using classical genetics – we are not modifying it in the sense that we’ve added something to it; it’s not engineering which is an alteration. This is conventional plant breeding.

This will help in being able to breed disease resistant cocoa. By unlocking the genome, you open the toolbox to be able to give traditional breeders all the tools they need to improve upon and solve today’s challenges. Every scientist in the world will have free and unfettered access to this information. This is because Mars feels this is the best way to encourage all scientists, farmers and breeders to contribute solutions to the cocoa industry. We can’t do it alone, but we are proud to be able to lead the way by investing in the sequencing and assembly of the cocoa genome.

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Didn't think you'd hear that from the company that brings you 3 Musketeers, did you? I know I learned a lot and am encouraged to see a company of your scale doing such broadly positive things, for farmers, the environment, and consumers.

More on Mars
Rainforest Alliance Partners with North America's Largest Cocoa Processor
The Man Behind Mars Bars Going Sustainable
Mars Candy Commits to Sustainable Cocoa Sources

Tags: Consumerism | Corporate Responsibility | Economics | Environmental Footprint | Waste

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