INTERVIEW: Ruud Tijsens, Director Corporate Affairs, Strategic R&D and CSR at Agrifirm Group, and Director, NutriControl b.v.



Posted on 04 February 2013  | 
Ruud Tijsens, Director Corporate Affairs, Strategic R&D and CSR at Agrifirm Group, and Director, NutriControl b.v.
© Ruud TijssensEnlarge

What is the Agrifirm Group?

Agrifirm is a Dutch based co-operative, with 17,000 members (life stock and agricultural farmers) that have combined their purchasing power. Agrifirm’s turnover is 2.3 billion euro, with 3,000 employees in Western Europe, and factories in Ukraine and China. More details can be found on www.agrifirm.com.

We have been involved for many years in responsible soy, and became a member of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) in 2007. Our total use of soybean meal is around 250,000 tonnes, of which 70% is in use in the Netherlands. The soy Agrifirm is using is mainly produced in Brazil and Argentina.

What is your company policy on soy?

For Agrifirm, soy is a valuable commodity with high nutritional value that is important to deliver the promise of our brand: providing innovative, sustainable solutions for our farmers. We are aware that there is a lot of controversy around the production of soy, and that unacceptable practices do occur in some places where this crop is grown. For this reason, Agrifirm has developed a two-pronged strategy for soy:
  1.  We intend to source 100% sustainable soy by 2015. This is why Agrifirm is active in the RTRS, and also why we offer our expertise to support the transition toward responsible soy in the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent in Belgium.
  2. We are also actively looking for alternative protein sources, by studying other proteins and encouraging the growth of European protein sources, such as North-West European soy.

What is the background of the Foundation for the Supply Chain Transition to Responsible Soy?

The Foundation for the Supply Chain Transition to Responsible Soy (Stichting Ketentransitie Verantwoorde Soja)—the continuation of the Dutch Sustainable Soy Initiative (IDS)—is an endeavour by the Dutch food chain to shift to 100% responsible soy by 2015. The initiative was established in 2012, with the entire Dutch food chain (crush, trade, feed industry, farmer organizations, representatives from the poultry, dairy and pork chain as well as food and retail sectors) committing to cooperate to make the transition happen. In cooperation with the Dutch government-based Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), 2 objectives were set:
  1. A gradual increase in responsible soy use, with the following targets: 500,000 tonnes of Mass Balance (MB) or credits (from sourcing regions) of RTRS-certified soy by 2012, and 1.8 million tonnes of MB RTRS-certified soy by 2015. We plan to achieve these targets through collaboration with soy and soy bean meal traders, thanks to funding from supply chain partners and IDH.
  2. Consolidate changes in buyer sourcing requirements for the retail sector, and along the whole supply chain, so that responsible soy becomes the norm.
The establishment of the foundation is the result of close collaboration between stakeholders in the feed industry and the rest of the supply chain, as well as IDH. Henk Flipsen and Paulien vd Graaf (both at Nevedi), Jaap Oskam from Nutreco (the current President of the Board of RTRS) and I worked closely to arrange the 2015 soy commitment. Now, all representatives from the foundation’s participating organizations are present on the Foundation’s board, with Henk Flipsen of Nevedi as Chairman of the board.

I am the project leader of the foundation. This includes working in the project group in which IDH, WWF-Netherlands (as a representative of the supporting NGOs), and representatives of the meal and the oil purchase groups are also present. I am also leading the purchase working group.

What are the results so far and what challenges were experienced?

Recently the Foundation issued a press release announcing the purchase of 280,000 tonnes of RTRS certificates—double the amount we purchased in 2011—and 120,000 tonnes of other certificates in 2012.

As recently stated by Mr Flipsen, the foundation’s chairman, this kind of track is always loaded with challenges. The challenges were not very big on the supply side: In 2012 we aimed at buying mass balance certified RTRS soy, and RTRS credits. The supply of RTRS certified soy, both credits and mass balance, appeared not to be a problem. We worked with the traders that generally supply the Dutch market and IDH that supported local producers to fulfill RTRS requirements. Some suppliers managed to supply without problems, others needed more time and decided not to participate in the deal. The biggest challenge was on the market side: to keep faith in the collective aim to reach 100% use of certified soy in the Netherlands in 2015. Until now we are making steps forwards. A big success factor is the cooperation between all chain partners and the willingness to stimulate and help each other on this track. On the other hand there is an open attitude to other companies and organizations. We convinced other—sometimes critical—parties to join us.

What challenges do you see over the next few years?

I cannot answer this question on behalf of the Foundation. At Agrifirm, we believe that the main challenge in the future will be the alignment of different sustainability initiatives and standards. Agrifirm values the work and the role of the RTRS, but we have to realize that it is not the only initiative in the world on responsible soy. Nevertheless, we sincerely hope that RTRS can develop as a “gold standard” for other standards. We also hope that a clear and broadly accepted benchmark system can be put in place by the RTRS, which will help to discriminate between the different standards.

I have discussed with Mr Flipsen regarding the foundation and the Dutch commitment to responsible soy, and based on our experience so far, he does not think there will be a problem in getting enough RTRS-certified production to reach our 100% target in 2015. The challenge is to physically get the existing and newly developed certified supply to the Dutch market (through funded projects), as mass balance or segregated. Segregation of soy will be difficult because of the bulk character with small margins in this market. We focus on mass balance. As long as demand is still low, setting up a 100% mass balance or segregated supply chain is difficult, but the demand from other countries can make the difference to reach the necessary scale. Therefore we are trying to convince our colleagues in other countries. The other challenge is how to assure buyers and consumers that the product they consume comes from animals that are fed with responsible soy. Up to now, RTRS labeling stops at the feed industry, so we have to think of a way to make verifiable claims for market players.

Any recommendations, suggestions and ideas for other feed companies or other stakeholders?

The discussion on, and consequently the dynamics of, responsible soy production vary around the world, and also within Europe. But we must realize that only a handful of traders are involved in the importation of soybeans and soybean meal to Europe, and also that the number of ports through which South American Soy is entering Europe is very limited. So it is of the utmost importance to work closely together within Europe to shift toward responsible soy or soybean meal. This could lead to compromises in the short run, which could feel less comfortable in countries that are more ahead than others. And for the countries where the issue is still developing, it could feel like they have less freedom to choose. But at the end of the day, the goal is to have responsible soy in our silos. To make this possible we must align the European initiatives.

What is your vision with regards to responsible soy?

I am aware of the environmental and social impacts of soy production. As a soy purchasing organization, we have the responsibility to ensure that these practices do not occur, or at least, that unsustainable soybeans do not enter our factories. However, not all soy is produced in detrimental ways. During my travels I met with well organized, trained and engaged farmers and farmer organizations that operate in a sustainable manner. So, in my opinion it is important to reward these farmer organizations. In the end, we cannot change the world but we can do our utmost best to contribute to change. As the Dutch saying goes, “if you want to change the world, start with your own business.” And that is our starting point at Agrifirm.
Ruud Tijsens, Director Corporate Affairs, Strategic R&D and CSR at Agrifirm Group, and Director, NutriControl b.v.
© Ruud Tijssens Enlarge

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