Specialising in sustainability, standards and certification.
Jason: Over the past 30-40 years, certification and standards have helped create awareness about sustainability throughout the value chain from producers to consumers. They have helped focus attention on people, planet and profit. At their best, they have been science-based, created by multi-stakeholder groups and focus on measuring performance and continuous improvement. They have shaped consensus about key issues as well as defined acceptable performance levels. None of them achieve all of these things, however, and some achieve none of them.
Jason: We need to start by recognizing the problem—producing food is the biggest threat to the planet. And, by 2050, 9+ billion people with 2.9 times the per capita income of today and a doubling of consumption (including dietary shifts to animal protein and fresh fruits and vegetables year round) will only increase the impacts. We need to freeze the footprint of food. Agricultural sprawl is the biggest threat to biodiversity on the planet. But, there is no silver bullet. We need to increase productivity and efficiency on the one hand and reduce waste and change consumption on the other. No single strategy will suffice if we are going to roughly double net food availability. Which systems, certified or not, can do that?
Jason: If our goal is to double net food availability while freezing the footprint of producing food (e.g. using no more resources than we do today), then we need to measure what matters and then manage it. No certification program does this sufficiently today—most, in fact, are practice based, not performance based. Also, we can’t measure everything. So, instead of hundreds of indicators, perhaps we could move the needle if we focused on 6-10. The point is to be effective, not comprehensive. Only a small number of issues represent 60-80% of the impacts we care about.
This also addresses the credibility of certification programs. They all imply that if you buy a certified product you will help reward better performance. But few collect or monitor the information needed to prove it. At best, they leave that to others to undertake after the fact and at costs that are not internalized. Whether the goal is improved social, environmental or income performance, each program has a responsibility to prove that production they certify is better for people, planet and profit.
Jason: Today, governments are mostly on the sidelines. They are not engaged. That has to change. If the goal is to produce more with less to meet the demand for food going forward, then governments need to be engaged on several fronts, e.g. land use planning, impacts, water take and effluent, input use, better practices, trade, waste and consumption. Governments can monitor certified production and trade, and they can harmonize or at least benchmark different standards. Governments can be more active as well. For example, Ireland has committed that 100% of all food exports will be certified against credible third party standards by 2016. No other country has done that. The US has created and taken over a single organic standard. At the very least, certification programs should help governments understand what better production looks like and how it is achieved. Officials can then take those principles to help move the bottom. We will make the greatest gains in productivity, efficiency and reducing the biggest impacts of producing food if we work with the poorer performers rather than just the better ones.
Jason will be delivering the keynote address on 21st May at the Global Sustainability Standards Conference. Conference registration is now open and includes a full programme of sessions on certification impacts, government engagement, the business case of certification, and many additional topics for sustainability standards leaders and users of standards, as well as their partners and stakeholder groups.
Jason leads the work of WWF-US on Markets and Food. He has just launched the Markets Institute to address global issues in more timely, cost-effective ways. Dr. Clay invented Rainforest Marketing, one of the first fair-trade ecolabels in the United States and also co-created Rainforest Crunch, the Ben & Jerry’s flavor containing sustainable ingredients. He has co-convened multi-stakeholder roundtables of producers, investors, buyers and NGOs to identify and reduce the social and environmental impacts of various products, including sugarcane, cotton, and beef. Dr. Clay has studied at Harvard University and the London School of Economics and also holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and international agriculture from Cornell University.