Greater ownership and management of the stevia supply chain has helped to build a system that is sustainable, responsible, and scalable, say leading global suppliers PureCircle and Cargill.
Food supply chain sustainability is an issue of global importance. In the fourth and final part of our stevia special edition, FoodNavigator speaks to leading stevia suppliers Cargill and PureCircle to examine what sustainability means in a relatively new supply chain like stevia.
Speaking with this publication Elizabeth Fay, head of external relations and communications for Truvia at Cargill, and Jason Hecker, vice president of global marketing and innovation for PureCircle, said that stevia has provided an opportunity to build a new supply chain – which has allowed for greater integration and focus on sustainability and responsible management.
“In building something from scratch, we had the luxury to look at all of the major certification programmes, in addition to all of the agricultural codes ... and to really think about what is best practice, and to aspire to that,” said Fay, who went on to explain that Cargill take the approach of looking at best practices, and adopting them “not just in a one-up, one-back situation, but throughout the whole value chain.”
Hecker added that the idea of vertical integration is key to the success of the stevia supply chain for suppliers such as PureCircle: “Without that true ownership, naturally there are deals that should be made – that are in the best interests of the farmers or end consumers – but just can’t be made. There is knowledge on the table that you just can’t access."
For example, Hecker noted that if a supplier does not own the purification or extraction facilities, it cannot have a sense of the different stages during the extraction process. By being able to control every step of the supply chain, companies are better able to include elements of sustainability, such as water treatment programmes and biomass to biogas facilities, at different stages of the chain, he said.
Small but scalable
Fay noted that in many agricultural industries, it is very difficult to establish an auditable and traceable supply chain.
“When you are at a smaller scale, as stevia is and will be, the idea is not to grow massive plantations but to make smaller farming situations more effective and profitable, and help the farmers improve their yield,” said Fay, explaining that with smaller communities “it is much easier to implement auditable and traceable activities when compared with larger scale productions – such as cocoa.”
Hecker argued that small-scale farms can also allow for greater scalability in the future, but noted that being able to scale in the right way and at the right time requires suppliers to work closely with customers – “to know and forecast their needs.”
“We’ve got farmers who see this is a positive crop. Who can scale. So that’s not the question. The question is to work with manufacturers on their formulation needs and from that anticipate demand.”
“One of the things that we are focusing on is partnering with those communities that are growing with us, so that they can get the right information about where we are heading commercially and then can make planning decisions based on that – because we want them to be successful,” said Fay, of Cargill.
“If there’s a situation where the yield is not the right size, and they grow too much or too little then that doesn’t help us build for a sustainable future. So it’s critical to have a system that is good for the farmer.”
Fay added that even with a significant increase in global demand, the intent would not be to have large global plantations, but to help make the small scale farms more effective and to get the yield up in that way.”
“It’s not about increasing acreage, it’s about increasing productivity,” she said.
“If you look across the major certification standards, there are different criteria that make up the three legs of sustainability; they are environmental, social, and economic,” said Fay.
By looking at these areas, assessing what it means to be responsible and sustainable, and looking at whether suppliers are meeting these standards, she explained that the food industry can begin to take a more holistic view to sustainability.
“I guess a lot of sustainability marketing that is out there only really deals with one level, either talking about the farm level, or a social program in the community. But this is not a holistic approach to the entire value chain from farm level, to primary extraction, right to formulation,”
“By having standards at each of these points, then you are able to have that audit trail for your customers,” Fay noted.
There is a growing demand for organic and fair trade certification in the wider food industry, but as Fay and Hecker explain, such certifications for stevia seem a way of becoming standard practice.
“In order to be organic certified you have to adhere to a certain agricultural code, which is not a problem, but in order to get that certification in Europe and the US you have to enrol first, and have to be enrolled in an organic for at least three years before you can make a claim,” explained Fay.
Another major issue with stevia as an ingredient, she added, is that its use as a high intensity sweetener means most finished products do not require large amounts of the ingredient.
“For a lot these certifications, and for the end user to be able to use a label for that certification, there has to be a minimum content of at least 30%. What you actually find is you will never reach that minimum content criteria – so we’re not yet hearing that marketplace pressure from end users saying they want fair-trade, because they can’t use the label,” said Fay.
However Hecker noted that because the supply chain is built on saleability, insights from the consumer can help to guide the way in which stevia is grown and supplied.
“If organic is the big thing that they want – and we know in some markets it’s more important than in others – then we have the capabilities to make that happen,” he said.