Purpose Incorporated: A primer for brands in APAC
This article is part of a special series on how brands in APAC can go beyond profit to do good and do better for themselves and others. Read more.
Non-WARC subscribers can read this series in its entirety by accessing the articles via the landing page.
Why it matters
The market system is about profit and productivity – it doesn’t reward efforts to promote biodiversity or create a healthier ecosystem for the community – but change needs to happen to help farmers make the shift because of the environment.
- The Sciaccas developed an ecological management monitoring system that audits the outcomes of ecoganics.
- Ecoganic is about restoring a balanced ecosystem because a lot of farming practices have been unhealthy.
- They were motivated by people and the planet, and they persisted despite slow initial sales and industry backlash.
Frank and Dianne Sciacca have been Australian banana farmers for over 30 years and based in Innisfail, Queensland, they add their signature red wax to bananas.
As leaders in regenerative farming pioneering a welfare system called Ecoganic, they have revolutionised the industry with farming that does not allow insecticides, nematicides or miticides to be applied to the soil, nor the use of other synthetic or organic products in amounts that will not interfere with ecosystem restoration. The Ecoganic philosophy is about mimicking nature’s solutions to help farming and it summons an integrated ecological management monitoring system that independently audits the outcomes of ecoganics that is now a globally recognised certification.
The Sciaccas’ ecoganic farming model is also used as a best practice example to educate students on how to implement sustainable end-to-end business practices from farm to market. It is currently being used in James Cook University and New South Wales high schools. As a reef-friendly banana, it has won the Prince of Wales Environmental Leadership Great Barrier Reef award.
It is also the first Australian banana farm to achieve international standards for environmental management, endorsed by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
Over 80 tons of red tipped bananas are shipped every week across Australia and the company is the largest banana exporter to Hong Kong and Singapore.
But Frank said the market system needs to change to reward looking after the environment over profit and productivity to help farmers make the shift.
The market system is about dollars and cents and it doesn't reward, he said.
“It's about productivity, there's nothing there to reward anybody that says, I am putting carbon back into the soil, I am bringing my biodiversity back, I'm creating a healthier ecosystem for my community.”
Farmers growing healthy products are not getting paid for that but for their output, which has to be blemish-free and of a certain size – “things that are sometimes completely against looking after the environment”.
“That's the change that needs to happen.”
<="" p="" alt="Content image">
A whitelip frog and Ecoganic bananas
Then there’s the striking red wax tip, which makes an Ecoganic banana stand out on any supermarket shelf.
Dianne said that was for the consumer to know that they are buying bananas that were not conventionally farmed but cultivated under regenerative farming.
“Frank grew up watching his father farm, 60 years ago. He had his own businesses, he was an auto electrician and then came back to the farm in 1980 to grow sugarcane. In the late ’80s, he was disillusioned with costs, return prices and the ability of the farm to be productive. We had a 2,000-tonne cane farm and over a period of a couple of years, he was like, Okay, I need 5,000 tonnes, just to put food on the table.”
But something wasn’t right – sugar content and yields were dropping.
“At that stage, the banana industry was undersupplied, so we decided that he was going to put bananas in to pay the tax bill. We needed money to pay the tax on the sugar but we had no profit. That was the drive to look at it because he said, I'm not going to farm the way I've farmed the cane, I'm going to do this differently. So without me knowing, he was experimenting with a new farming system of how he believed he should grow bananas in the way he felt it needed to go.”
Frank did that for about two or three years without Dianne even knowing and he dived into the subject and became very knowledgeable about ecosystems on the reef, like a subconscious diver looking for that same ecosystem but on land. And that was what was driving the change in banana production.
Dianne said: “After about three years, he came to me and said, I think I can do it commercially but I need the consumer to know that every time they buy my banana, that's a banana that's been grown this way. So probably for about six months, he was walking around like a crazy guy trying to find a way to identify their bananas.”
Then Frank dipped them in paint.
“He said, This is what I want my bananas to look like. I thought he was crazy. Nobody is going to buy bananas that look like that.”
So they started working on the cheese grade wax, modifying it so that it was biodegradable but could still be used commercially in hot and cold temperatures, like being heated in a car when the shopper takes it home.
“The big thing was to be able to identify it because we needed to be able to get a price to cover the cost of production, otherwise, we wouldn't be here today. And that took a long time, it was a huge challenge because you're changing a mindset of the way the whole market system works. And that is, you send food that is perishable, and the agent sells it but they don't really care whether it covers the grower’s cost of production because they're able to take the margin to cover their cost. Everybody in the supply chain is going to be paid and the farmer is at the mercy of what's left over. We had to take ourselves outside that framework, that business and selling framework. So obviously we were pretty slow in the beginning.”
But as with everything the Sciaccas did, their efforts were not motivated by profit but by people and the planet, and they persisted despite slow initial sales and industry backlash which still exists today.
“Frank and I are not driven by money. This was never about a marketing gimmick to make more money. It was about changing the way we farm and being able to achieve a price that would cover regenerating and protecting our natural assets. We weren't farming under the commercial system anyway, so we had nothing to lose. As long as we can pay our bills and put food on the table, that was our goal and at the same time, protect the environment.”
It was, and is, a testament to their integrity and values because not many people would expend their time and money to do the right thing. Dr Tony Patterson from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, who has been studying the soil on the Sciaccas’ farm since 2002, presented a paper in Paris to say that what the couple have done with ecoganics is well ahead of its time – at a global level.
Dianne and Frank Sciacca with their Prince of Wales Environmental Leadership – Reef Sustainability Award
The Ecoganic farming system is grounded in integrity and starts by looking for people who want to farm sustainably, combined with good business sense because “unfortunately, a lot of the organic thinking is that the consumer is going to buy produce even if it doesn't look great”, said Dianne, who went back to school, joining both her daughters at university and cherry picking subjects that could help in the business, like marketing and consumer behaviour.
At the same time as she was developing a business and marketing framework, Frank was developing the farming system.
“He was setting up a system to monitor insects and biodiversity in the paddock because he said, ‘I can't be on every farm all the time, making sure that farmers are doing what they should be doing, so we also implemented a growers’ management meeting monthly and it was sacramental. Like if someone couldn't come, we would cancel and reschedule. That indicates the loyalty of the group. We are grateful for the commitment of our eco growers.”
At those meetings, issues around farming were discussed, with the changes and what everyone else was seeing, which gave Frank knowledge for him to think about where to head next.
The monitoring system meant that Frank didn’t have to be on the farm – he could just look at a report identifying the ratings of biodiversity and key indicator species to know exactly what's happening on farm.
“With the help of DPI, we set up this monitoring record sheet where we were looking at certain species and events, monitoring spiders/ants/beetles and the biodiversity on the farm. And that's all counted. We started this very early, back in 2003. That monitoring system has been modified over time and as we learn more, we have an entomologist that goes fortnightly to each farm and she's taking samples, taking photos and recording what's in insect traps, as well as monitoring the insect biodiversity in the paddock.”
All the information is stored in a purpose-built database.
The overriding aim of all that work and effort was to restore the ecosystem, to make it healthy again because a lot of farming has created unhealthy ecosystems – the carbon is not entering the soil because the recyclers aren't there to recycle, there’s no organic mulch to bring back to feed microbes in the soil for them to flourish and create different funguses and different communes, communities and ecosystems, underneath and above the soil.
“Ecoganic does exactly that. It's completely different to organic, whereas organic, I see it as very selfish because it's about somebody buying something and saying, I think this is healthy,” said Frank.
“So I asked the question, if the earth’s ecosystems are getting sicker and sicker, and the earth is becoming sicker, how can organic produce make you healthier?”
On the other hand, Ecoganic is about creating your own little ecosystem, from where you are creating that health back.
Beyond sustainability, the Sciaccas can show the tangible benefits of ecoganics for farmers, retailers and consumers. They have saved huge amounts of money by removing costly banana farming processes because of a good ecosystem that avoids problems those processes were created to deal with.
Frank said, “Because we have predators, we've developed all those systems to take care of that, so I don't need a synthetic or organic insecticide or pesticide to solve those problems. It's about creating the systems when you're not using any other things and you need to put science into this.”
This is because one cannot simply assume as assumptions can create huge problems – “you need to know what is actually happening”.
“The compost bin is an example of this. Compost is really good so we're going to put a lot more compost. But think about it, you're changing the ecosystem.”
Nature never intended it to be like that and as it changes the whole ecosystem, it starts to imbalance and create problems.
“So you may have a situation where there are not enough recyclers to recycle the compost or not the white recyclers. That is because you've been using pesticides or insecticides. A lot of that organic carbon is going to oxidise and go back into the air as CO2. So you are probably creating a worse situation without even knowing that that's actually happening. It's important, therefore, that you need to have monitoring systems and backup and support.”
Despite being disillusioned at times by the profit-driven marketplace, the Sciaccas are heartened by the school children who visit their farm. Like a slow organic movement, as one child tells another, and then their teacher finds out, the kids are making it happen, thus showing the vital role of education to drive generational change versus waiting for governments to act.
“The next phase for us, apart from growing the culture and the knowledge with consumers, is to enter the education space with the younger generation.”
So how can consumer voices help ecoganics to scale the benefits?
Frank said the message needs to go to the supermarkets because they know from their own market research that consumers are trying to buy the product but it's not available to them.
“So that comes back to the supermarkets having the confidence of managing Ecoganic Bananas in the same manner that they manage any other product. When you have a niche product, it's managed differently through the supply chain and whilst we might save a lot of money on farming, it can actually become more expensive because being niche, you don't have access to some of the buying power that other big commercial players have.”
Basically, the consumer has to say to the supermarket, yes, this is the sort of product we want to have made available to us.
“For the supermarkets, they've got to make their margins as well. They can't afford to have losses on shelf. So managing a niche product through those supply chains can be a challenge but if they've got the confidence from consumers that they want to buy food that's not destroying the environment it is grown in, that's where we need consumer support dramatically.”