EY team learns data is essential to a Mexico farmer's survival
Every year EY, a global professional services organization, takes a group of employees out of their cubicles and drops them into nature. Organized by the Earthwatch Institute and supported by a group of local scientists, EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors help with field research and use their professional knowledge to tackle a business or social challenge. This is one participant’s story.
A Mexico City farmer stands straddling a small canal that he has just finished digging. He tells us that for as long as he can remember, his family has dug a canal in that same place, year after year. He shows us his crops, describing how he learned crop rotation from his father, a technique used to renew the soil. He points out the species of flowers and herbs his sons have planted in a field nearby to naturally repel bugs. He brings us to a pile of natural fertilizer, made of straw and cow dung, steaming and stinky in the hot afternoon sun.
On first glance, visiting Xochimilco, an area of wetlands area just south of Mexico City, gives you the impression that nothing has changed for decades. It is a place rich with tradition, where everyone knows the neighbors, where more food is cultivated than bought, where livestock outnumber Internet connections. Just under the surface, however, a quiet battle emerges in these wetlands, pitting these traditional farmers against modern farming techniques and a depleted environment, forcing local farmers to confront a simple question: will they adapt and embrace a new way of farming, or will they stay the course and risk irrelevancy? As EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors, our goal was to help answer this question.
In the last decade, farmers of Xochimilco have been confronted with new environmental issues. One is the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase crop yields and keep bugs away. Our team took water and insect samples to measure the effect of these chemicals. The results demonstrated a significant increase in harmful chemicals and decrease in nutrients in areas near farms with chemical pesticides. The data we collected for Earthwatch will be used to promote organic farming in the area and as a call to action to politicians to shape environmental policy.
Another issue facing these farmers is water supply. With the increase in the population of Mexico City, the water levels have drained, turning once popular canal routes into patches of mud. Farmers who used to relying solely on irrigation ditches now have had to buy gas-powered pumps and sprinkler systems which pipe water from canals, draining more water and compounding the problem even more.
Environmental changes aside, farmers in the area also encounter a changing Mexican consumer. The urban Mexican is increasingly asking questions about where her food comes from and how it is produced. Using the skillsets we bring from the business world, our EY team spent about half of our time supporting a group of about 10 organic farmers in the area, suggesting organizational, financial and marketing changes to increase efficiency and visibility. Some of our deliverables included a mission and vision statement, a profit and loss statement, and an analysis of new distribution channels as community-sponsored agriculture. Equipped with these new tools, the organization — we hope — will grow stronger and provide a home base for organic farmers in the area.
Upon my return from Xochimilco, I find myself changed, both professionally and personally. Personally, I never will take for granted the water from my faucet again. Professionally, I hope to make sustainability an emphasis of my career going forward by bringing leading sustainability practices to future client projects.
My biggest takeaway from my time in Xochimilco is the importance of data to equip the green movement. In our polarized country, blogs such as GreenBiz, organizations such as Earthwatch and topics such as organic farming tend to turn some people off. Many too often will write off the green movement as politically biased.
As advocates for the earth, how do we overcome this? The answer is simple: data. Data is the alchemy furnace, the only tool with the magical power to transform a whining environmentalist into a hard-nosed pragmatist confronting a real-world problem. It is one thing to say, “Without action from local and national political leaders to regulate the amount of water taken from the area, Mexico City’s remaining wetlands will be drastically depleted.” It is yet another to say, “At the current rate, Mexico City’s water supply will be depleted by 2020.”
Suffice it to say, in all matters — especially in charged environmental matters — it is best to follow the advice of my former boss, who used to tell me, “In God we trust; all others bring data.”
Top image of Xochimilco via Eric & Autumn's World Roll Up