Businesses such as General Mills and Bonterra are increasingly deepening their ecological knowledge. They are doing so by expanding place-based and geographically specific understandings, learnings, practices, and beliefs about the interrelationships and mutual interdependencies between living beings (including humans) and their (nonhuman) environment. Ecological knowledge is derived from systematic, long-term observations of natural phenomena and the relationships among species, ecological processes, and ecosystem functions.
Current sources and keepers of such knowledge range from scientific groups to diverse communities of natural resource users, including networks of professionals that generate knowledge through many years of observation and direct interaction with the natural environment. Examples include local communities, indigenous groups, and other users of natural resources that can offer substantial knowledge about ecosystems and ecosystem dynamics. Such knowledge ranges from understanding an individual species or species ecology to knowledge about the larger ecosystem of which they are part.
Hunters, for example, develop knowledge about a specific ecosystem from their near-daily observations of the area covered, including one species preying on another species, fluctuations in populations of these predators, and other changes in ecology and the behavior of specific animals. Fishermen/women create experience-based knowledge about marine ecosystems, including fish behavior, specific fishing locations, local marine stocks, and how these things change over time.
Farmers can similarly develop a deep understanding of local ecological conditions, including agricultural production systems, species traits, watershed services, and traditional soil management measures. The agro-ecological knowledge held by farmers includes climatic conditions relevant to crop production, natural enemies of crops and pesticide alternatives, bird species and conservation, plant types and their insecticidal/medicinal properties, and seed varieties that have adapted to soil and weather patterns. Other types of ecological knowledge include traditional cropping practices, weather characteristics, irrigation practices, crop rotation, and the behavior of drought-resistant species and varieties.
Businesses both large and small are also becoming important sources and keepers of ecological knowledge, often through partnerships. One example is Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse on Vancouver Island in Canada. Sea Cider turned to ecological knowledge about pollination, soil health, water usage, and invasive species to improve the company’s overall sustainability performance. Ivy invades forest ecosystems, and another invasive plant, gorse, is destroying coastal sand ecosystems on Vancouver Island. Sea Cider partnered with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (Canada’s largest national land conservation organization) and leading biologists and environmental studies researchers from Vancouver Island’s University of Victoria to strengthen its knowledge about invasive species and the island’s unique ecology. The company is using the resulting knowledge to manage invasive species in its apple orchard.
How Businesses Acquire & Use Ecological Knowledge
Transforming a firm’s in-depth understanding of its embeddedness in (and interdependence with) nature into organizational knowledge can enhance the firm’s performance and reduce its negative impact on nature.
Companies in a variety of industries increasingly use their knowledge about ecosystem dynamics to strengthen their capacity to improve their relationships with nature and contribute to ecologically and socially sound development.
Below, we examine how two companies in very different industries discovered important knowledge about the complex relationships between their organizations and the ecosystems they rely on. This, in turn, enabled them to source critical raw materials for their businesses.
Barilla, the world’s largest user of durum wheat semolina, implemented a sustainable agriculture project between 2010 and 2014 to bring systemic changes to the cultivation of durum wheat. At the time, durum wheat was responsible for more than 80% of the ecological footprint of pasta, including very high water consumption and reduced land biodiversity.
The project’s main goal was to generate knowledge about complex agriculture systems to help achieve a consistent supply of high-quality wheat while preserving soil and ecosystem functions, thus reducing the negative ecological impact of pasta.
A cross-functional team of Barilla managers from global supply chain, R&D, and others formed a multi-stakeholder partnership with Horta, an organization with expertise in scientific research and technological innovation; Life Cycle Engineering, an Italian consulting firm with expertise in lifecycle assessment and eco-design; and — importantly —with farmers, farmer organizations, and local authorities from the northern, central, and southern parts of Italy.
In the first phase, an in-field experiment applied new ecological knowledge about crop rotation and generated many surprising results: CO2 emissions went down by nearly 50%, and soil productivity, final yield, and product quality improved dramatically, increasing farmers’ profitability.
In the next phase, the ecological knowledge this multi-stakeholder partnership generated was codified into a “Handbook for Sustainable Cultivation of Durum Wheat” to provide farmers with practical suggestions on crop rotation, soil preparation, the choice and amount of seeds, controlling weeds, disease protection, and more. Using this knowledge, Barilla’s partner Horta built the interactive Web tool granoduro.net to provide practical decision support to farmers on weed and pest management, water balance, crop lifecycles, and environmental impacts.
The effort led Barilla to launch “Barilla Sustainable Farming” in 2013, a project that now promotes sustainable agriculture practices to more than 10,000 farms around the world.
For IKEA, cotton is an essential raw material. In the early 2000s, health risks to farmers, soil erosion, and water scarcity made the harmful environmental and social impacts of conventional cotton production an urgent issue for the company. The firm ventured far upstream into its cotton supply chain to work with farmers, farmer organizations, and local nongovernmental organizations to understand how cotton is cultivated and processed in places like Pakistan and India.
The resulting knowledge helped the company initiate sustainable cotton-farming practices that not only reduced the negative environmental impacts of cotton production, but also lowered the cost of production and improved the quality of raw materials.
IKEA then formed the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a multi-stakeholder partnership with Adidas, Gap, H&M, International Federation of Agricultural Producers, International Finance Corporation, World Wildlife Fund, and several local development organizations. The projects initiated by BCI have helped more than 1 million farmers in 20 countries to significantly reduce the use of pesticides, water, and fertilizers in cotton production while increasing soil health and biodiversity. The organization has also helped improve socioeconomic conditions in farming communities. BCI’s 600 members now source and supply sustainable cotton at all stages of the textile supply chain.
These two stories illustrate how a new breed of business organizations is pushing beyond traditional boundaries by explicitly incorporating their understanding of nature into their strategies.
They also demonstrate that a large-scale, system-level change toward more ecologically sustainable production systems is an evolutionary process, one that requires organizations to access as many sources of ecological knowledge as possible.
[For more from the authors on this topic, see: “How Ecological Knowledge Can Catalyze System-Level Change: Lessons from Agriculture & Beyond.”]