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  • Writer's pictureDave Black

‘Sustainability’ – Where Has It Come From? And What Does It Mean for Beekeepers?

There is a lot of noise about the sentiment labelled ‘sustainability’ these days, either from people who are, or want to be ‘sustainable’, or about operations or businesses that need to be ‘sustainable’. Apiculture and beekeepers are undoubtably – and will continue to be – part of the sustainability movement. So, Dave Black explores how we got to this point in the movement and how New Zealand apiculture is implicated – right down to the beekeeper on the ground.

By Dave Black

Sustainability is much more visible now, and more than just a sentiment, because of its coupling with tangible climate change. To go back as far as one can… in the original literal (Latin) sense, something that can be sustained is merely something that can be held, or upheld, something that will hold you up. That’s not quite how it is used now though. Mostly what I see or hear is people talking past each other, they are using the same words but they mean different things.

The Limits to Growth Study, published in 1972 and introducing concepts which would eventually be the foundation of the 'sustainability' movement.

Apiculture seems to inhabit two camps. For some sustainability is about survival, a feat of endurance, the long-term profitability of the business. For the others it’s about an ideal state of nature, a return to Eden. Under duress, both camps might agree that it is about the principles that we must use to create the future.

In the Beginning…

Long before ‘Climate Risk’ was being understood as a threat to the global economy academics were pointing out the possibility that we could out-grow the planet’s resources. Reports like the Meadows’ Limits to Growth study, published and required reading when I was at school in 1972, were widely viewed as heresy at the time. In 1987 the UN-commissioned Brundtland Report established the most common definition of ‘sustainability’ as used now, when it stated: "Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

This report prompted the nations of the world to meet for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 (the ‘Rio Earth Summit’). 178 countries adopted what became known as ‘Agenda 21’ as a non-binding action plan to further development and conservation together. In more recent times Agenda 21 has been superseded, eventually, by 17 interdependent ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ or SDGs in 2015 (see sidebar for the full list).

Creating the Watchdogs

A major reason for increased scrutiny of environmental and social performance of many organisations the World over is the work of one of the most powerful international ‘watchdogs’ you have never heard of: the Financial Stability Board (FSB), created by G20 finance ministers following the last Global Financial Crisis in 2009.

The FSB assesses threats to international financial markets and creates global standards for the operation of banks and financial systems to make sure confidence in the system is upheld. Climate change is one such threat and the FSB has established a ‘task force’ with a typically long name, the ‘Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures’ (or TCFD) to improve reporting of climate-related financial information, so that risk can be properly assessed, sensible plans develop, and reasonable investment decisions follow. As a result of this, in New Zealand on the 27 Oct 2021, the Financial Sector (Climate-related Disclosures and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2021 received Royal Assent and passed into law, a direct result of the TCFD, and the first regulation of its kind in the world.

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 saw World leaders meet and get the ball rolling on global environmental actions.

What it Means

The 2021 regulation is just one of the reasons the environmental and social performance of many organisations is under increasing scrutiny in all sorts of ways, from consumers, investors, employees, and of course local and national authorities. Some 200 large public organisations and NZX companies are now required to file with the annual accounts something called an ESG report. These Environmental, Social, and Governance statements are intended to ensure consideration of climate risks and resilience (aka ‘sustainability’) sits at the heart of financial and business decision making.

A graphic from Comvita NZ’s ESG report outlining themes of a sustainable beekeeping and honey business.

How’s it Impacting Agriculture?

In parallel, the international organisations that deal with various forms of trading standards, like Good Agricultural Practice (GAP, or now GlobalGAP), the British Retail Consortium, or buyers like CostCo, have gradually aligned their values towards those built into ideas like the SDGs. With a little reflection, most people accept that our collective dependence on the effective conservation of the earth’s natural resources also relies on social values like equity, health, education, and justice.

GlobalGAP, the bane of many a horticulturalist’s audit life, now has a GRASP ‘add-on’ (the GlobalGAP Risk Assessment on Social Practice). Not paying sufficient attention to social values is now regarded as a business risk, and people who may buy your products, lend you money, insure your equipment, or work with your undertaking could make you regret the oversight. Put quite simply, the thinking is, if anything we do, nationally or internationally, creates pools of disadvantaged, alienated people, they will have the ability to sabotage the whole project.

Apiculture and the Drivers of Change: 3-Cs.

By now, you probably think you’ve opened the wrong magazine. How does this matter to us? So, here is Comvita’s ESG presentation (If you’re following along with all the acronyms, you will remember the ESG is the report NZX companies are required to file). Comvita, being publicly listed, is probably the only apiculturally relevant New Zealand organisation subject to the new disclosure regime, but that doesn’t mean the Act won’t affect anyone else. Big fish eat little fish, and the big fish are asking about the provenance of their meal; ‘trickle-down’ is the cheapest form of regulation.

[Editor’s note. Comvita sustainability programme lead Erin Swanson stated as much during her presentation to the Apiculture New Zealand Conference recently, saying they were looking to partner with suppliers who shared their sustainability goals.]

However, it is not just the 2021 Act, or size, or contractor compliance in the form of GlobalGAP, that will drive the principle of ‘sustainable’ beekeeping operations. I think of three ‘Cs’ driving change: Consumers, Costs, and Consequences.

Customers, paying and non-paying, prefer dealing with operations that are socially and environmentally responsible. Costs, return on investment, and operational efficiency improve with the scrutiny and will increase if you aren’t. There are long-term Consequences of not operating sustainably; operations that aren’t environmentally sustainable can damage your reputation and create distrust among your customers, investors, and the larger public.

So how can New Zealand beekeepers respond to the need for sustainability within their businesses? Well that's a question for next month, where we will look at some of the research and resources available to beekeepers, and how we stack up.


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