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It is time to recognize the limits of certification in agriculture (commentary)

  • In early 2017, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) decided that it was going to stop working with certification in agriculture.
  • It was actually a fairly easy and straightforward decision: After working with this tool for over 20 years, we could look back and conclude that certification was not the best approach to improve the sustainability of most farmers in the world, especially when considering the huge challenges we face from climate change, poverty, deforestation, soil and water contamination, and human rights violations.
  • In our history, we have seen many positive impacts from certification for workers, producers and the environment. But we have also increasingly come to recognize the limitations of certification as a tool to drive change in agricultural production systems at scale.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

In early 2017, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) decided that it was going to stop working with certification in agriculture. It was actually a fairly easy and straightforward decision: After working with this tool for over 20 years, we could look back and conclude that certification was not the best approach to improve the sustainability of most farmers in the world, especially when considering the huge challenges we face from climate change, poverty, deforestation, soil and water contamination, and human rights violations.

That is not to say that credible certification does not have a role anymore. In our history, we have seen many positive impacts from certification for workers, producers and the environment. But we have also increasingly come to recognize the limitations of certification as a tool to drive change in agricultural production systems at scale.

In our opinion, there are four main interrelated limitations of certification in agriculture:

Complexity

Certification standards have a high degree of complexity, covering a wide range of issues. In practice, this means that more often than not the gap between producers’ reality and what is required by certification is simply too wide. Most farmers in the world lack the technical and financial resources to be able to bridge this gap. Over the years we have seen this happen especially for small farmers, in crops such as tea, coffee, and sugar.

A certified farm in Costa Rica. Photo Credit: SAN.

Cost relative to value

From label fees to auditing and compliance costs, agriculture certification can be a costly exercise. Most times, certification audits are done as a policing exercise, which brings little direct value to the producer. The issue of cost drives certification to higher-end products and developed country markets, which usually can better absorb the increase in the price of raw materials. An example of this is coffee, for which certification can be feasible for the more niche premium products, but not as attractive for the higher volume used in price-sensitive categories. Another one is rice, a staple food in much of the developing world, where certification is virtually nonexistent.

Scalability

The high complexity and cost hinder the ability of credible certification to scale up and go beyond low double digits in terms of penetration in a given sector. This is a typical low-hanging fruit situation, where, after an initial period of fast growth, every subsequent increase in uptake becomes more difficult than the previous one. A study published earlier this year by the International Trade Centre has some interesting data on the decreasing growth rates of certification for crops with higher market penetration, such as cocoa and coffee.

Effectiveness

In our experience, certification has been shown to have limited effectiveness to deal with some of the more intractable problems we see in agriculture, such as child labor, poverty, sexual harassment, sanitation, and others. In some cases, these are larger structural problems, for which a supply-chain-driven solution alone will not work. In other situations, the comprehensive nature of certification will often mean that auditors do not have the necessary expertise or are not able to dedicate enough time to uncover issues that are not immediately visible, and certification ends up misstating the actual reality on the ground.

The above limitations mean that certification will work for farms that are already reasonably well-managed, have access to resources, have markets that are able to better value their products, and encounter fairly well-functioning local governance structures. These conditions are very specific and are not the reality most farmers in the world live in.

The world is seeing a new sense of urgency with regard to key social and environmental issues. There are an increasing number of companies committing to eliminate the worst forms of environmental impact or human rights violations from their supply chains. Many of them have also adopted broader sustainability commitments, but there is growing recognition that sustainability is a long-term journey and that they need to first focus on eliminating the worst practices embedded in their products, such as deforestation, child labor, or modern slavery.

Considering its limitations on scalability and effectiveness, agriculture certification will not be an effective tool to tackle these key social and environmental problems.

It is time to more clearly acknowledge that certification has a limited role to play in solving the sustainability challenges we face in agriculture. If we are truly interested in transforming agriculture, we need to concentrate on solving the worst issues first and at scale. This is a transition that SAN is currently undergoing and one which we encourage others to do as well!

A certified farm in Costa Rica. Photo Credit: SAN.

CITATION

Andre de Freitas is executive director of the Sustainable Agriculture Network. He was previously the Director General of the Forest Stewardship Council and the Executive Director of Imaflora. He has also served many years as a board member of initiatives such as the ISEAL Alliance and Social Accountability International.