Eco-standards and certification systems have proliferated over the past two decades, with growing interest and recognition by consumers, producers, businesses, and investors. But are these certifications and standards actually achieving what they set out to do?
Background and Methods
Growing demand for indications that agricultural eco-standards are indeed achieving their intended social and environmental benefits has mirrored the expansion of eco-labeling. Based on an extensive literature review and interviews with twenty individuals representing leading eco-standards or certification entities, umbrella organizations, advocates and partners, Assessing the Ecological Impacts of Agricultural Eco-Certification and Standards reviews the science and practice of ecological impact assessments for agricultural eco-standards.
According to the study’s findings, impact assessment of the environmental effects of agricultural eco-standards has been relatively limited, with most of the work to date composed of one-off research studies as opposed to systematic assessment strategies. The report found:
- Roasted and Brewed. Thirty-six past and ongoing ecological impact studies were identified with more than two-thirds of these studies focused on eco-certified coffee, with just a few examining cacao, bananas, palm oil, non-timber forest products & other agricultural commodities.
- In the Americas. The majority of the impact assessment work has taken place in the Americas with only a few studies in Africa or Asia.
- An Impact Assessment Toolshed. There is a wide range of suitable, cost-effective methods and tools available for impact assessment, such as environmental proxy measures, calculator tools, and remote sensing tools. One example is the Cool Farm Tool, developed by Unilever, Sustainable Food Lab, and University of Aberdeen. Yet practitioners identified the need for better assessment tools that were specifically tailored to the context of agricultural eco-standards.
- If the Price is Right. In practice, this means that tools must be cost-effective, capable of being applied across large areas or supply chain portfolios, well-integrated into existing audit and verification processes, and not too demanding of human resources.
Of the five ecological dimensions assessed, watershed functions and services, biodiversity conservation, and ecosystem composition and function were expected to require measurement and assessment at a landscape scale, rather than simply at farm level.
Some of the greatest barriers to successful impact assessment identified by respondents were lack of funding and human capacity. Given recent momentum, this is the time to build a strong framework, infrastructure, and partnerships to support strategic approaches to ecological assessment. The proposed “pyramid” strategy to monitor the environmental impacts of agricultural eco-standards combines a variety of approaches, data types and methodologies to strike an optimal balance between relevance for multiple stakeholders, cost-effectiveness, and rigor.
Partnerships present an important opportunity for improving efficiency, consistency, and the quality and effectiveness of sustainability metrics. One proposed solution is to form a technical working group or network to develop and implement specific ecological impact assessment projects. Efforts should also focus on adapting scientific tools that already exist to the context of agricultural eco-standards.