We are now a few months into the on-going COVID-19 crisis and we are all starting to wrap our heads around what seems to be a new normal. Every day we challenge previous assumptions about how we work and collaborate, how we measure progress and success, and what we consider to be essential or mission critical.
As someone who leads sustainability efforts in a large organization, it is the question of what is essential that has been on my mind during recent weeks. When coronavirus is behind us, will we think of sustainability as a nice-to-have that can come after "essential" business and customer needs, or will we see this work as an essential part of future success? As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, this question seems more important than ever.
The COVID-19 situation has highlighted several fundamental issues that also apply to sustainability. It is absolutely essential that sustainability continues to get an enhanced focus given what we’re learning about the world in 2020. In particular, the ongoing crisis has shined a bright light on the critical nature of resilience and availability of limited resources, both at the heart of sustainability.
We may not know when and where a crisis is going to emerge, but we know they will come. Sustainability at its core is about resilience — economically, environmentally, and socially — and doing what is needed today to ensure we are best positioned to succeed tomorrow. Let’s consider a few areas where COVID-19 has emphasized that similar resilience.
Viruses don’t recognize borders. They spread indiscriminately and even if they could be contained to one location, the ripple effects would still be felt elsewhere. The same is true for greenhouse gas emissions, which in one region contribute to climate change effects like drought and induce food insecurity half-way across the world. And that food insecurity can lead to strife, unrest, and even conflict with geopolitical impacts felt globally.
Borders can’t be built around problems in far-away lands. Resilience and sustainability in a global ecosystem mean recognizing that actions “here” can have an impact “there” and also making decisions that take into account the wellbeing of people, places, and environments across all locations because we all use and depend on the same resources.
Only as strong as the most vulnerable
Largely, because the world is so interconnected, one lesson we have learned from COVID-19 is that the whole is only as strong as the most vulnerable components. An area with the best plans, best testing capabilities, sufficient hospital capacity can only fend off the virus to the extent that other areas with less capabilities and efforts allow.
We see this perhaps most notably with smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries. Small farms produce 80 percent of the food in developing regions of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and a significant portion of the food produced globally; yet they are often the most vulnerable and least equipped to handle effects of climate change, crop disease or, as we are learning, global pandemics. When smallholder farmers struggle, the effects on local communities and regions can be devastating — and this has measurable impact globally.
The COVID pandemic is teaching us that to build resilience to a crisis, we must invest in those areas where the greatest vulnerabilities exist. When we help smallholder farmers become more resilient, food accessibility and nutrition aren’t the only differences we see. Education rates increase. Businesses and communities grow. Poverty declines. And low- and middle-income countries become more active participants in the global economy, which is good for us all and positions the world better for unforeseen challenges in the future.
Science leads the way
We are a long way from writing the history of the COVID pandemic, but when we do I think science will be the hero of this tale. It was scientists that first alerted us to the potential problem. It was scientists that provided us with the steps to take to protect ourselves, and it will be scientists that find a vaccine for this virus.
Science continues to give us warnings related to our planetary boundaries. It tells us that in key areas like greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss we are crossing thresholds that could jeopardize lives and livelihoods into the future. As much as it was essential to heed those early warnings from science about COVID-19, it is essential that we heed its warnings and guidance with regard to climate change.
Making Sustainability Essential
Turning sustainability into a model for business development and growth is crucial, but following through is difficult. For companies like Bayer, it requires bold and concrete goals that drive business decisions in courageous ways. And we must make sustainability valuable to farmers’ business so they have an incentive to increase the use of sustainable practices. It also means taking a long-term vision that helps shape the research and development pipeline. And finally, it requires a fundamental organization and cultural change to think of what we do and why we do it in a different way.
Fifty years ago, the first Earth Day raised awareness that our planetary resources were essential and worthy of protection. While the world is rightly focused on how to solve the urgent health threat posed by COVID-19, the environmental challenges that are mounting with our world's growing population are not going away. Ensuring that we listen and act on advice of scientific experts and treat sustainability efforts as essential will be critical to making this happen.