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Farmers' Friend

The author of an authoritative, commodity-by-commodity handbook on sustainable agricultural practices for 12 international staple crops, sweepingly titled World Agriculture and the Environment, should be familiar with farming on many levels: local to global and independent to commercial. Yet Jason Clay ’73 may even be overqualified.

He grew up on his family’s corn and soybean farm in Missouri. His undergraduate and doctoral studies in anthropology sparked an interest in the special difficulties faced by indigenous peoples in other countries. He then spent a semester lecturing at Harvard on anthropology and Latin American studies and a few years studying the impact of public policies on general nutrition while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eventually he realized, "Rather than documenting what was changing in the world, I wanted to change it. Inevitably, that means getting informed and then getting involved."

In acting on this philosophy, Clay became something of an innovation and communications guru. He spent 10 years as the editor of Cultural Survival Quarterly, published by Cultural Survival, a nonprofit organization founded by members of the Harvard anthropology department; the quarterly is a forum for discussing political and economic problems faced by ethnic minorities around the world. But Clay decided over time that "the better way to work with the groups who were being taken advantage of was to give them an economic base, rather than relying on magnanimous third parties." He developed rainforest marketing, using his business expertise and contacts to find international markets for local products such as the Brazil nuts and cashews used in Ben and Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch ice cream. He also worked with the World Wildlife Fund, the World Bank, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to research innovative sustainable agriculture.

Having dealt with agricultural practices at many levels, Clay feels able to assess the big picture. He makes a special point of stressing that the effects of farming on the environment are huge but diffuse: "Agriculture is comprised of a billion farmers globally, with each polluting the air, groundwater, streams, and soils, but with no single place to measure the cumulative impact." His good news is that there are many BMPs (better management practices) that can decrease environmental side effects while increasing profits. Some methods are surprising: it can be more profitable, for example, for farmers to abandon less fertile marginal lands and focus their resources on the most productive areas, and in the process put less strain on the environment.

"Business and government are both the biggest potential threats to the environment and the biggest opportunities to conserve it," Clay says, so communication between and within the two sectors is crucial. Although many individual farmers are developing innovative approaches, widespread adoption of new practices can be slow. A number of nongovernmental organizations are actively gathering and dispensing this information, acting as catalysts of progress. One result is Clay’s book. Primary support from the Center for Conservation Innovation, a branch of the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund, has enabled Clay to draw not only on current research but also on what he has learned from 30 years of talking to farmers all over the world. With chapters for each of the 12 staple crops, including coffee, cotton, and soybeans, the book is intended to serve as a reference for farmers, food industry executives, and policymakers.

Changing the face of global agriculture may not appear to fall into the category of protecting human rights, but Clay believes that his early and his recent work share the same goals. After developing niche products in rainforest marketing, he sought a means of making more sweeping changes and turned his attention to the staple crops that dominate farming. "The idea," he explains, "is to find ways that are profitable for companies to do the right thing. The right thing for the environment is often also the right thing for the business. And responsible, viable businesses provide an engine for helping economies develop."

~Emer Vaughn