Yesterday, the Landscapes Blog covered a publication on standards and certifications relevant to soybean production in Brazil. Such 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?
A recent study conducted by EcoAgriculture Partners, in collaboration with International Finance Corporation, reviews and assesses the science and practice of ecological impact assessments for agricultural eco-standards. Demand for understanding whether agricultural eco-standards are indeed achieving their intended social and environmental benefits has grown with the rise and expansion of these labels. 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 comprising one-off research studies as opposed to systematic assessment strategies.
Based on an extensive literature review and interviews with twenty (20) individuals representing leading eco-standards or certification entities, umbrellas organizations, advocates and partners this report found:
- Overall, impact assessment of the environmental effects of agricultural eco-standards has been relatively limited, with most of the work to date comprising one-off research studies as opposed to systematic assessment strategies.
- 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 & others.
- The majority of the impact assessment work has taken place in the Americas with only a few studies in Africa or Asia.
- There is a wide range of suitable, cost-effective methods and tools available such as environmental proxy measures, calculator tools, and remote sensing tools.
- Practitioners identified the need for better assessment tools that were specifically tailored to the context of agricultural eco-standards. 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 of conservation, and ecosystem composition and function were expected to require measurement and assessment at a landscape scale (above).
The authors advocate for building on recent momentum to create 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. Given recent momentum, this is the time to build a strong framework, infrastructure, and partnerships to support strategic approaches to ecological assessment. And there is great opportunity for groups such as ISEAL Alliance, SAI Platform, and the Committee on Sustainability Assessment to take the lead on enhancing the rigor and cost effectiveness of monitoring and evaluation efforts.