Fair trade certification schemes have made a positive impact on promoting sustainable farming practices. However, African businesses and environmentally conscious consumers do find many areas of the schemes challenging and confusing. No African government has signed up to champion agricultural certification.

Furthermore, the bulk of the environmental impact from agriculture is coming from the lowest performing companies in terms of output. Typically, these companies are not the focus of certification programmes.

An innovative new approach, where community members are trained to collect data on sustainable practices, aims to move beyond certification and drive real change across the sector.


Originally published by CIFORS Forests News.

The challenges agriculture poses are well known. The sector covers 40 percent of the Earth’s surface area, produces up to 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is the largest cause of deforestation and habitat loss and accounts for about 70 percent of the projected loss of terrestrial biodiversity.

Yet despite its outsized impact, the global agricultural system is still not adequately feeding the planet: 820 million people are undernourished and 9 percent of the world’s population is severely food-insecure. What is more, as the world’s population grows and demographics change, demands on agriculture will be exacerbated further.

“We all know we need to double food production by 2050,” said Howard-Yana Shapiro, senior advisor on private sector and markets for the new Center for International Forestry Research – World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) initiative Resilient Landscapes. “But we don’t have any more land we can afford to lose. If you destroy a forest for agribusiness, you are never going to get that biodiversity back.”

Over the past three decades, as the negative environmental and social impacts of agricultural systems have become increasingly apparent, certification schemes have been implemented to try to promote farming methods that are more nourishing – or at least less damaging – for the planet and its people. These kinds of schemes, such as Rainforest AllianceFairtrade International and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification, often rely on “conscious consumers” in wealthier markets being prepared to pay a higher premium for certified products.

Such schemes have served to raise awareness of environmental and social issues in supply chains, and provide benefits to numerous individuals, communities and landscapes across the globe. However, they have so far failed to adequately catalyze the widespread transformation in agricultural systems that is urgently required.

One reason for this is that certification schemes have failed to target the world’s poorest farmers, said Jason Clay, senior vice-president for markets at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in a panel at a session titled, “The Nature of Business,” hosted by Resilient Landscapes at the recent Global Landscapes Forum’s Biodiversity Digital Conference..  “The bottom 25 percent of performers for any commodity produce 50 percent of the [environmental] impacts, but only 10 percent of the product,” he said. “So if we really are interested in increasing productivity and efficiency and reducing impacts, we work with the bottom, not the top – and most certification programs focus on working with the top. So we need to flip our thinking.”

Most of the 120 existing certification schemes are complicated and expensive for farmers and companies to get involved in. “There’s too many indicators,” said Tony Simons, executive director of CIFOR-ICRAF and Resilient Landscapes. “One scheme has 450 of them! – and the costs of getting all that information are very high.”

Also, certification is usually granted by consultants who visit sites just once a year, parachuting in and out, so it’s difficult for them to get the full picture of what is going on around the year, he said.

What’s more, while the concept of certification has been taken up enthusiastically by some companies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and consumers — especially in Europe, Simons added. “Unfortunately they have left governments out of the dialogue so there’s not a single developing country government anywhere that champions agricultural certification.”

Hopes are high that Resilient Landscapes, which aims to fix broken food systems contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss by providing attractive investment solutions based on science and data to companies, financial investors, donors and governments can take a leading role on forging change. It is now rolling out a game-changing innovation for making global agriculture work for people and planet – from the ground up.

Called the Agricultural Performance System (APS), the method focuses on five interdependent dimensions: productivity; profitability; environmental stewardship; social inclusion and good governance, offering five to 10 indicators for each. “With these common standards, it doesn’t matter whether you’re growing potatoes in Ireland, or vanilla in Madagascar, or palm oil in Malaysia, or soybeans in the United States: everybody will have the same small set of proxy metrics that we all agree and collect data on” said Simons.

Crucially, community members are trained to collect that data, meaning monitoring and adaptation can take place on an ongoing basis. As a universal but adaptable system, to which extra metrics can be added as desired, the system will also prove extremely useful for national governments, particularly for things like reporting on Nationally Determined Contributions to the U.N. Paris Agreement on Climate Change (NDCs).

“In many developing countries, there are multinational companies that have more information about the country than the government does,” said Simons. “And these companies believe that all of that information is competitive and highly secret, and it sits in shoeboxes because they don’t really know what to do with it. So we’re going to bring countries back to being in charge of their information.”

This development doesn’t necessarily spell the end for certification schemes. “There will be some places where they’ll want to be organically certified, for instance,” said Shapiro. “But underneath all of that is going to be the performance system. So we’re going to become the norm, and if there’s another certification that helps communities on top of that, that’s great too.”

Since sounding out the idea with some of the world’s largest processors, aggregators and certifiers – as well as farmers and NGOs – in 2017, the scientists involved began experimenting with applying the approach in different landscapes and to different commodities, working in a number of locations in Cote D’Ivoire, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Lesotho. “Now we’re ready to launch it with some new momentum, and to tie it into landscape-level investments through Resilient Landscapes,” said Simons.

The team is also conducting a survey to dig deep on definitions and appropriate criteria for the five dimensions of the APS.


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