The United Nations' Rio +20 Summit arrives at a critical time in the perceived conflict between economic expansion and preservation of natural resources.
The challenge: How to balance myriad interests to produce a win-win for all - people, land, plants and animals?
Our family's coffee company - which works directly with coffee farms from Central America to Africa to Indonesia - knows firsthand that sustainable development can lift people out of poverty and preserve nature.
We've also witnessed shortsighted socioeconomic models.
In the 1980s, on some farms barefoot children - some wheezing from chronic respiratory problems - huddled or played in filthy, three-walled shacks with dirt floors. Some picked coffee. Breakfast was sometimes sugar water.
One elementary classroom was an old fertilizer shed where fumes from toxic chemicals stuck to clothing.
Untreated waste and pollutants flowed from farms into rivers where fish labored for oxygen. Poaching occurred in forests also used as a firewood source.
We've learned that making a difference requires investment - providing modern housing, medical and educational facilities and paying the farmer enough to stay in business for example - but the payoff is enormous.
Technology plays a role. But nature itself offers solutions.
In Central America, a "biodigester" system prevents coffee bean waste from contaminating rivers, reduces greenhouse gases and helps power organic farms.
A "green army" - billions of worms - digest and transform coffee pulp into organic mulch that's given to farmers to help promote organic production in Africa and Central America.
The coffee farms support a tremendous range of bird and animal species as well as jobs performed around native vegetation and forest - proof the economy and environment can coexist.
The past may also hold some promise for the future of sustainable agriculture.
We discovered an ancient Amazonian agricultural technique - terra preta - that mixes charcoal, microorganisms and other waste to create a "super soil" that also retains carbon.
The increased yield - up to 300 percent - could reduce the destruction of forests for farming and greenhouse gases.
Here's what governments can do to help promote such efforts:
-- Provide tax breaks or other incentives for companies to become "carbon negative," undertake "green" measures or create sustainable jobs.
-- Strengthen the economic and environmental standards required for a company to claim its product is "sustainable" or "fair."
-- Offer unused or surplus land at a good price to companies engaged in sustainable development.
-- Encourage the private sector to offer financial incentives to individuals who devise programs that further a "green economy."
-- Encourage organic production and preservation of natural resources.
Sustainable development can involve simple, inexpensive measures or require significant capital.
In the end, the cost of not investing is much greater than the cost to invest in sustainable development for future generations.
Article posted in San Francisco Chronicle