February 2021 by Suma
Following natural and sustainable practices has moved from being a choice to a necessity. A resource that needs our immediate attention is soil. There are two very critical angles to this issue – Water and Air
There has been a lot of focus on global warming in the past one year before our attention shifted to COVID 19. Greta Thurnberg with her emotionally charged speeches managed to grab world attention and to a large extent sympathy. Quite a few nations pledged to cut their carbon emissions by significant percentages. However, scientists have been insisting that we have gone past the point where just slowing down is not going to stop our fall off the cliff. We need to start driving the other way. How do we do this? Well it’s quite simple actually, reversal of carbon emissions is by definition, carbon sequestration i.e, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it somewhere. It is not rocket science, we have machines that do that but they are nowhere as scalable or as efficient as something we find naturally and have ignored for far too long – Our forests.
Recommended reading: Why We Need To Take Soil More Seriously – PART 1 : WATER
Plants are the most perfect systems we know, that suck carbon dioxide out of air and use it to convert it into living tissue i.e, in effect, every ring on a tree is carbon pulled out of the atmosphere. And when these plants die, if the soil on which they fall has organisms in it, then the carbon stored in the tissue is consumed by these organisms rather than getting emitted back into the air. Usually canopy trees grow for several 100 years before they fall, so in that sense the scope of sequestering carbon is immense by just growing forests back. Moreover, forests don’t just die all at once. So the emission, if any, into the atmosphere by a tree dying and rotting is a gradual process and doesn’t just happen overnight. For this mechanism to really work, three things need to happen consistently, there has to be life in the soil, there has to be more plants growing than the ones falling down, the life of any plant that does grow needs to be long. Hence the focus on growing perennial forest systems and not annual crops.
By forests we don’t quite mean national parks. We are only referring to self fulfilling cycles, ecosystems that can support themselves in terms of fundamental requirements like nutrition, water and air. Whether we do food extraction from them is immaterial as long as that balance is maintained. In fact, if all agricultural land on earth were to shift towards food forests, we will be able to not only support 5 times more people but also continuously increase the soil carbon content every year. It is estimated that 1% increase in soil carbon content amounts to offsetting all carbon emissions of the last 40 years.
All said and done, it is easy to see now how a person in Chennai needs to care about the forest systems and the soil in Malenadu, South Karnataka. How a Hyderabadi should care about what is really happening in Adilabad and Nashik. We have to really stop picking apart the ecosystem and stop solving the issues in silos because nature doesn’t work in silos. It is all one giant interdependent set of relationships. Pulling one thread in coorg, would affect a tap in Bangalore. It is time we understood these relationships or at least acknowledged them and moved beyond agreement to action. As we race towards a point of no return, solutions are possible at this stage to reverse it back to a stable equilibrium and we need to seize this opportunity. Anything short of that is just conversation.
The present pandemic situation has made almost everyone relook at their lifestyles. There is an immediate and urgent desire to move to a simpler lifestyle, where you can take charge of the quality of food you eat, the water you drink and the air you breath and the space you raise your family in.
Last week, we conducted an open house ‘Conversations: Life at a beforest collective. An open discussion’ .Over 50 individuals joined us for a discussion where we covered some very interesting and practical questions over living on a collective. Over the next months we will be conducting many live and interactive sessions with experts from the field of natural farming, biodiversity, foresting, water conservation etc. Each of these interactions can take you one step closer to living a sustainable lifestyle, wherever you are.
One such event will be a Facebook live session Expert speak with one of India’s leading wildlife expert Dr. Shekhar Kolipaka. Shekhar comes with years of experience across the world. He is also working with beforest for an extensive biodiversity study of the landscapes and to see how we can create an environment of coexistence with wildlife. We hope to see you at this session that is sure to be an engaging one!
Meanwhile, here are some of the things we discussed over ‘Conversations’:
How long does it take to move from city to farm?
If you plan to start a farm on your own, it is a long process. The steps maybe something like this: Understand your priorities, scout for land, set up fencing, study the landscape & local vegetation, plant, grow and market the products. Depending on your life stage, you may need to also scout for education and medical facilities around the property.
This takes a lot of time and travel, but considering it a long term plan, it will be well worth the effort.
At beforest collectives, we have covered most of these steps over the past 3 years in great detail. Currently, just our staff at Poomale lives at the collective. We are in the process of setting up shared house facilities now and will be starting individual houses in the next year. Families plan to start moving in as soon as possible.
Who looks after the maintenance of the farm in case we decide not to reside there right away?
If you are an Urban farmer or a weekend farmer, you would need to find someone with experience to work full time at your farm. A farm takes a lot of work and involvement, especially in the initial couple of years.
At beforest, we have created a hierarchy of staff who are all employees of the collective. This would include farm staff all the way to the estate manager. Most of the processes are autonomous and now need only supervision and basic direction from our side. In addition, member suggestions and involvement are welcome while the groundwork can be handled by the staff under beforest supervision.
What is it like, to live on a farm?
Life at a farm, while deeply satisfying, can be as gruelling as life in a corporate job. It is not all bonfires and camping, but getting your hands dirty with real physical labour on days. The first couple of years can be quite frustrating, since you would mostly learn through trials, errors and experience. If you are running your own farm, the labour involved will be more. While you can hire workers, someone needs to be deeply involved during critical times.
If you are part of a collective like beforest or hire competent people to look after your farm, you can rest easy and pitch in whenever possible.
If we move to a collective farm, can members continue to follow their professions through remote working, or do they have to actively participate in farming 100% of their time?
Short answer – At a collective like beforest, it is your choice and decision.
As a beforest collective member, think of yourself as a promoter and beforest as a CEO you have hired to run the show. What this means is, whether you show up or not, operations carry on, but to a plan we have made up. If you have some aspirations from the farm, it makes sense to participate at least in the decision making If not the day to day operations.
Typically, 30 to 40% of our members are looking to move to one of the collectives. Some of these members are retired and look forward to participating in the farm labour. The others have jobs which allow them to work remotely. To facilitate this, we are in the process of enabling high bandwidth Internet connectivity, relay and network just for the collectives.
In fact, at a collective like Hyderabad, it may even be possible for you to commute to work daily and also participate in the farm work during your free time if you wish.
What kind of expertise do you need to run a farm or farming collective?
You need information if not experience. If you are starting a farm on your own, you could take to reading and courses offered in India on permaculture and sustainable agriculture. We would be happy to suggest a few.
At beforest, we have engaged the best modern minds in different fields. Biome environmental solutions Pvt Ltd to develop a self-sustaining ecosystem. We have also engaged United designers who come with a large team and years of global experience in the field of permaculture, wildlife and human – wildlife interaction.
Dr. Shekhar Kolipaka, a renowned authority on wildlife is one of our consultants on preserving wildlife at Poomale. It is exciting to say the least, that we are crossing over from mere theoretical concepts to new frontiers of techniques in the field.
Permaculture over such a large land has rarely been attempted at the level of detail we are trying to go down to.
What is the scope of social projects that can be undertaken at the collectives?
There is so much that can be done. If you are a motivated human being, you will give back to the society, regardless of where you are.
beforest created jobs for 20 locals to start with. We will be creating employment for 50-100 people over the next 2 years. Essentially, beforest is a platform and members are free to mutually create any avenues to contribute to the local communities or society in general.
Some of the ideas under consideration are – conservation projects for weaver communities of India and, education/awareness in permaculture and natural farming to interested local farming communities so that they can be self-reliant too, providing transportation to children who had to drop out of school when they could not afford bus fares.
There are many such ground level issues that we definitely will involve in as we get to know communities around each of our collectives and the problems they are facing.
We will answer many more pertinent questions through blog posts and videos in the coming months. Make sure you follow us and stay tuned!
Sustainability is one of the most frequently used buzzwords today. Everyone, from heads of state to ecommerce players, seem to want to hop onto the sustainability bandwagon. As it often happens, when the word gets thrown around more frequently, the meaning gets diluted.
What do I mean by sustainability?
How sustainable a business is, quite literally translates to how long it can continue in the current form when you factor in all costs. “All” being the key word. Ideally it should encompass ecological, financial and social costs. In fact, over a long enough horizon they are all interlinked. This is becoming evident today.
The things we assumed to be zero-cost inputs are becoming increasingly scarce, thus, completely compromising the business model and challenging its viability. Once these are factored in, it becomes increasingly clear that sustainability is not a tradeoff or a compromise. In fact, it makes a lot of business sense as it not only has a positive impact on the world, but also on the topline. Here’s how.
How long will the party last?
In October last year, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) cut off power supply for 8,00,000 Californian homes to avoid causing wildfires by overheated transmission lines. Two weeks later it did it again for 1,79,000 homes. Between 2017 and 2019, these overheated lines sparked 17 major wildlife incidents. As their stock price slid into a 52 week low, they went on to announce that they would need ten years until they upgraded their power infrastructure.
Why did they have to wait this long? Because ten years ago, wildfires were not that big a risk.
Keeping shareholders happy meant not investing potential dividend-dollars, into a supposedly unnecessary upgrade. You see, ten years ago, upgrading this infrastructure was regarded as dividend dollars being used up for tree hugging initiatives. When you adopt the perspective of immediate shareholder value, money is rarely invested into long term thinking or in other words sustainable thinking. Dividends are front loaded and investment into business sustainability are put on the back burner until absolutely necessary. When it does become absolutely necessary, money has already been distributed or spent and most firms resort to raising debt. This is so unnecessary! This is not a one off case. This is happening across the world, every day to a varying extent. The situation is so prevalent now, that quite a few institutional investors are urging firms to take a look at long term risks to their businesses and even investing a few years of bottomline towards avoiding it. It makes a lot of sense to avoid a sudden death.
Since 2011, PG&E has given close to 8$ as dividend per share. In april 2019, they announced a $28B plan to invest into their power and gas infrastructure. In the meanwhile, by oct 2019, over 90% of its market capital was eroded due to falling stock price pushing it to the brink of bankruptcy.
Cost of Commons – Nothing is free forever.
In 1833, William LLoyd wrote a pamphlet where he coined the term “commons”. He was referring to an english village grazing their cattle. When there is enough abundance, and the cattle numbers are small, the grassland, or the common, seems to be infinite. So every villager can now assume that the grassland ecosystem will rejuvenate on its own with no extra effort or cost. As a result, every villager is intrinsically ‘incentivised’ to add another cow to his herd simply because he gets the incremental benefit of the cow without really bearing the incremental cost of the grassland. If every villager continues to do this, at some point, the grassland starts degrading or in other words, the cost of the grassland stops being zero. It takes effort to maintain it and as a result, the villagers now need to account for the effort/cost of ‘cultivating’ the grassland – the cost of the commons. However, the rest of the village, which was used to buying the milk, may not be willing to pay for this added cost that seems to have emerged all of a sudden. Thus completely disrupting the viability of cattle rearing.
This is one of the most important aspects of being sustainable – include the cost of the commons. Never assume they are free. This, not only is a better way of pricing something, but also helps us to look at our value addition in a holistic sense. The implications of not doing so are catastrophic and are visible all over the world. The same extends to farming. Excessive use of synthetic fertilisers has rendered farm yields to consistently drop with the US reporting an average farm yield of -9% in 2016. Suddenly one of mankind’s most basic industries has been rendered unviable and steeply dependent on state subsidies. This analogy has repeated itself over and over again across the spectrum. Take fishing, for example, and the depleting offshore fish pools across europe. In fact, now most of the fish in a European plate is caught in Africa, filletted and canned in China and then shipped all the way to Europe. It is cheaper to do that now than to revive the fish populations artificially via breeding locally. Imagine that!!
Today, 20 Indian cities are on the brink of day zero (day when there’s no drinkable groundwater left) and might see it anytime in the coming year. This includes Bangalore, the silicon valley of India. 5 decades of exploitative unsustainable development that assumed that water is always available underground has led to this. Now the Karnataka govt has spent close to 7Billion USD on major and minor irrigation projects since 2016 alone.
William Lloyd’s grassland was never free, we just assumed it was.
When the going gets tough, the sustainable get going
An interesting offshoot of the increasing cost of commons is that companies that had factored this in have actually performed better over the last two decades. In a report on sustainable investing published by Deutsche bank in 2012, some remarkable observations were made that underlined the importance of being sustainable. The report elaborated how companies that ranked high in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics outperformed the market. Infact, they even observed that a value weighted portfolio of 1$ invested in high ESG companies in 1993, would have been 22$ by 2010 compared to 15$ of low ESG companies.
I was extremely surprised by the clarity of the findings in that study. As investment philosophies have evolved over time, more and more institutional players are now giving a lot of weightage to companies that place importance on ESG – factors that were traditionally considered non-financial, qualitative in nature and not readily quantifiable in monetary terms including changing policy and regulatory environments.
What’s even more interesting is that quite a few studies have observed that high ESG firms have a significantly lower cost of capital in terms of debt. In other words, the market recognizes them as being lower risk and rewards them accordingly. This may be a conscious reward or just based on the resulting outperformance, but what matters most is that this alone should make sustainability a high priority to any CFO in the world.
Goodness has a value
If a firm is following principles of ESG, then it makes a terrific story. The interesting thing is that it’s not just the markets that recognize this, but consumers too. There are innumerable examples of brands that have weaved their story around the environmental and ethical values behind their products. Take Patagonia for example. In 2013, in the run up to Christmas, when Europe and the US were at their consumerist best, the adventure gear company famously did the “don’t buy this jacket” campaign where they asked people to not buy their gear unless they really needed it. This was the first time a firm was asking folks to think hard if they really need their products. Although it sounded very counter-intuitive at the time, it established the values behind the brand and more importantly a strong community of super loyal customers who really appreciated the anti-consumerism sentiment they portrayed. This cohort of loyalists swear by this brand and this in turn created a lot of value centred around the “goodness” of it.
The concept of conscience buys is becoming increasingly prominent as consumers around the world are getting more educated about sustainability issues that are staring us all in the face. Being sustainable is not just a differentiator anymore but an entire identity by itself. Goodness has a value and most consumers don’t mind paying it.
The difficulty of being good
Having said that goodness has a value, I have to admit, it is not always easy to quantify it. Simply because we honestly do not know the complex systems that go into making an ecosystem in its entirety. Even amongst the factors we understand, we are quite far from actually arriving at a monetary value. For eg, shade grown coffee using fig and other evergreen trees in the western ghats is definitely a lot more sustainable than using silver oak as the shade layer. The figs hold the soil together, prevent erosion thus preventing landslides etc. But can we assign a value to a possible landslide? Maybe not accurately. But today, reasonable assumptions can be made and sensible approximations arrived at. Using this, one can include the cost of the commons in one’s business model itself.
Several frameworks exist today, to value the natural capital as an estimate. inVEST from Stanford university is one of the more popular ones. Infact, this has been used by the Government of India to assign a monetary value to the tiger reserves in the country. However, even these frameworks are estimates at best. It is almost impossible to assign a single value to being good and that’s what makes it difficult. Infact a recent study revealed that from among a 1000 companies that were sampled, 90% wanted to be more sustainable, 60% of them had a strategy for it, and only 25% were able to incorporate it into their business model to a reasonable extent. In my opinion, It is this difficulty that makes it interesting as well. It gives companies a chance to get really innovative both in terms of developing new technologies as well as new methodologies of measuring their impact. This is a great opportunity to create a differentiator for your products and be a pioneer.
I just work better when I am happy
Recruiting and retention of employees is a major focus area in any business. Recent research indicates that sustainable business practices are a major factor for the younger workforce when it comes to deciding their place of work. Beyond the paycheque and the work challenges, everyone likes to believe that they are making the world a better place. A recent global survey by HP showed that 40% of the workforce felt that sustainable practices are mandatory and about 46% admitted that they would look to change jobs if their current workforce moved towards unsustainable practices. For India in particular, the former number was at 73%.
Employee retention is not just an issue for the HR department. Operating units feel the pain in terms of product quality, productivity and customer service. With most big companies, it costs 6 to 9 months of pay to train a new employee. HR costs are only the tip of the iceberg. Bigger problems arise when the new guy is assigned to a team. Until the assignment happens, someone in the existing team would be shouldering those responsibilities. When the new hire comes in, someone has to train him, thus reducing his own productivity. Especially in sales, the effect is very direct on the topline. Nevermind the strain of a new dynamic coming into a closely knit team. These are very qualitative concerns that may not boil down to an exact monetary value, but will definitely have a huge impact on the firm’s topline. If it can be avoided, and being sustainable takes you a fair distance on that front, do we need another reason to adopt sustainability as a core principle?
Swimming downstream is never exhausting
At the end of the day, being sustainable largely implies aligning the firm along the natural order of things. In other words, the firm is choosing to swim along the current. It often boils down to reducing wastages, getting more efficient, eliminating redundancies and avoiding unnecessary vanity pitfalls. In the long term, we need to understand that being sustainable goes way beyond adding a touch of green to our usual practices but rather to think of the system as a finite whole and to understand our impact. In the process, we also acknowledge that this impact will have an effect on the viability of the business itself over a long enough horizon. As studies have repeatedly shown, it is not a question of whether a firm wants to adopt sustainable practices or not, but rather the understanding that, by definition, it’s in the best interest of the firm and all its stakeholders to do so.
Hey there my little ones…How are you doing?
Today’s post is a little different. I want to tell you about something special you can learn from trees.
Some days you feel things are going really bad. You feel like it’s the “worst day ever!!”
You bumped your knee, your friends didn’t turn up at school, your favourite toy broke or a kid was very mean to you.
On those days, I want you to picture a tree. A big strong beautiful tree. The roots of the tree go deep into the soil. The trunk is strong and stands straight and tall. The branches go high and wide, with many beautiful leaves growing.
The tree is surrounded by other big and small trees of the forest. Many birds, insects and animals live around the tree and love it very much.
When a storm comes, the branches of this tree sway in the wind, but the tree does not break, it does not fall. The big tree and the trees around, support each other and hold on. Soon, the storm passes, the sun shines, the birds chirp and the day is wonderful again.
Now, when you feel the day is just not going your way, imagine that you are this tree. You are surrounded by wonderful family and friends. A bad day is like a storm. It might feel like nothing is going your way, but the storm passes. You must stand tall, stay strong. Soon everything will be better and your day will be wonderful again..so smile 🙂
Here’s a soothing meditation practice can you can try each day. Remember the tree 🙂