Linda Prokopy is a Professor of Natural Resources Social Science and Belyna Bentlage is a Research Associate in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University. They conduct research on how to motivate farmers to adopt sustainable practices.
There is an urgent and recognized need to address sustainability issues in agriculture, including but not limited to, soil health, greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare, and water quality. The current trajectory of U.S. policy makes it likely that sustainability will continue to be accomplished primarily through the voluntary adoption of conservation practices. Yet we know that a voluntary approach is far from perfect, even with the encouragement of incentive programs from state and federal government.
Right now the agriculture industry is actively advocating for sustainability across the supply chain. These efforts can perhaps most easily be seen in meetings such as the Sustainable Agriculture Summit held in Atlanta, GA in November and sponsored by such industry stalwarts as Field to Market, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, the Pork Checkoff, the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, and the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. At these forums and throughout the industry, sustainability is often described as a three-legged stool where economic, environmental, and social concerns are all given equal weight.
One of the current approaches to sustainability is the use of certification programs – through which agricultural producers are “certified” as sustainable by non-government entities. Companies who subsequently purchase from these producers then label their foods “sustainably sourced.” This approach can be helpful to consumers who are often concerned about the environmental impacts of agriculture, but cannot possibly be expected to understand the intricacies of how their food was grown and where all the ingredients originated.
Before jumping into these programs, however, we need to exercise a measure of caution to ensure that we are not merely rubber stamping existing practices as “sustainable.” There are numerous documented examples of certification programs throughout the world (including ISO 14001, which was intended to be a worldwide standard for corporate environmental management), in which major polluters have been able to game the system and still get certified. We have seen evidence of similar trends in our research into fledgling agriculture certification programs in the U.S., where companies are claiming to sustainably source their ingredients without actually requiring any sustainable practices at the farm level.
We offer the following recommendations to the agricultural sector as they move forward with certification programs:
- Ensure that certifications pass a “transparency” test with both consumers and members of the agricultural sector. This basically means that the steps required for certification should be clearly documented and accessible. These steps need to demonstrate a commitment on behalf of certified producers to actively adopt and maintain practices that have been proven to lead to positive environmental change.
- A current buzzword in agriculture is “continuous improvement.” There seems to be an assumption that as long as producers continuously improve, they should be certified. While there is clearly nothing wrong with improving over time, a base level of sustainable practices needs to be ascertained before a producer is certified as sustainable. In other words, enrollment in a voluntary program where participants simply provide operational data does not qualify as “sustainably sourcing” raw agricultural materials. It should also be noted that there are innovative producers that are already doing everything they can possibly do to sustainably grow food and because these producers are already utilizing the best available science and practices, they have little or no margin for continuous improvement. Clearly they should not be penalized for their early efforts.
- Certification needs to be renewed at frequent intervals to ensure practices are still operational and producers are maintaining standards over time. Additionally, standards and certification renewals should account for improvements in practices. For example, when new practices with increased environmental benefits become available to producers, certification standards should reflect these improvements.
- We should certify based on outcomes in terms of soil health, water quality, animal welfare, etc. Certifying just on the basis of inputs and practices is no guarantee that we are making progress. While it is not possible to conduct monitoring on every agricultural field, sampling and well-tested models can provide useful outcome assessments. These assessments can also improve our knowledge of what is effective.
None of this is simple and we do not mean to imply that it is. There is great diversity among types of farms, which mean that not all farms need to do the same exact things to be “sustainable.” Both the public and private partners involved in certification programs have to grapple with that reality and with the very real issue of what “sustainable” certification truly means. However, this complexity cannot be used as an excuse to label food as sustainably sourced when the producers are not actually managing their operations in a sustainable manner that will ensure the future viability of their land, water, and other natural resources.
We must find a path to true agricultural sustainability, in which producers are able to earn a living, grow food for an increasing population, and protect our natural resources. Using the four recommendations above, we hope the agricultural sector will help make this a reality by avoiding mere rhetoric and instead moving forward with a detailed, documented process that demonstrates real sustainability.