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Abundant Produce on balancing ethical behavior and social responsibilities

Australian breeder Abundant Produce has once again provided some insider information on the inner workings of the company. This time the focus is on social responsibility. Research manager Graham Brown explains.

Is it difficult to balance ethical behaviour and social responsibilities with the need to maximise shareholder returns?
Not for us, fortunately. I imagine there are some industries where that balance might be hard - where production damages the environment, for example, or consumption is associated with poor physical or mental health outcomes.

But Abundant is aimed at producing nutritious, natural foods so consumption is healthy. Our impact on food production is positive too. We develop plants suitable for low tech, low cost growers in Asia and the Middle East, where poverty is widespread. We also apply a ‘minimum input’ philosophy – breeding plants with reduced water requirements, and decreased needs for insecticides and other agricultural chemicals. Our plants even require less temperature regulation, which can save on energy usage.
 
Abundant has the potential to make the world a better place. For me personally that’s a major source of satisfaction.
 
So running Abundant ethically is a straightforward result of being in the type of business you’re in?
It’s not as simple as that of course. Our association with Sydney University brings with it a responsibility and culture of ethical behaviour and, happily, some of the tools we need to avoid ethical mistakes.
 
Can you give us an example?
Well, take procurement of germplasm. When we acquire seeds or tissue from overseas to study, we don’t just tick a box and close our eyes. We use procedures to ensure compliance with international agreements and regulations so that origin countries are rewarded. It’s more work but it’s the right thing to do, and reduces the likelihood that we’ll discover issues down the track.
 
Investors are increasingly demanding that level of attention aren’t they – if only to avoid expensive lawsuits and product recalls?
They certainly are. The world is so much more transparent than it used to be, and where’s ethical conduct more important than in the food business? Consumer perceptions of food safety are paramount. But we try to go further. Procurement is an example of avoiding doing the wrong thing, but we also look for opportunities do the right thing.
 
For example, where I grew up I was used to sharing the classroom with Aboriginal kids, but as a career scientist, it’s been rare to encounter an Aboriginal person professionally. That’s sad for Aboriginal people, and for broader society, especially given the wealth of knowledge their culture retains about native Australian foods and medicines.
 
Happily, Sydney University is involved in programs supporting aboriginal students, and at Abundant Produce we want to follow that example. We’re actively exploring ways to involve indigenous Australians in what we do. That may be involvement in breeding, or perhaps in growing crops for market, which could provide the commercial experience needed for them to launch independent businesses.
 
Our efforts extend overseas too. The University’s Plant Breeding Institute has strong links to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. With the help of funding from ACIAR (the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research) we work with scientists from the sub-continent to develop tomato and Okra varieties that can withstand the 45 degrees plus heat of the Punjab. We help Pakistani women grow successful home vegetable gardens. That sounds like a tiny thing but better nutrition for their kids means better educational outcomes as well, and often extra income from the sale of surplus vegetables. The multiplier effects are substantial.
 
That sounds like a natural fit with your core business of developing robust, ‘minimum input’ crops, too.
Right. Google famously has the motto: “don’t be evil”. I like to think we do more than that, that we find ways to do some good in the world at the same time as producing returns for our shareholders.

For more information:
Abundant Produce
Suite 8, 6th Floor,
55 Miller Street,
Pyrmont, NSW 2009,
Australia
Phone: +61 2 9571 8300
Fax: +61 2 9571 8200
abundantproduce.com

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