To Truly Fight Poverty, Hunger and Climate Change, Sustainable Agriculture Must Go Global

The Paris Climate Agreement went into force on November 4, less than a year after 190 governments signed the landmark, legally binding international treaty. Ten days later, world leaders and civil society groups gathered at the COP22 climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, to tackle the next phase—implementation—beginning with the development of concrete climate action plans.

Agriculture, which accounts for 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (second only to the energy sector), is finally playing a starring role at the conference thanks to the treaty’s formal recognition of the critical interplay between agricultural expansion, deforestation and climate change.

"We must provide the necessary resources to support [climate] adaptation and encourage agriculture because it is one of the solutions to environmental problems," said Dr. Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change.

Pershing’s statement is a harbinger that the innovative sustainability solutions advanced by the Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) for 30 years are finding more widespread acceptance in the agricultural sector. The ambitious agricultural agenda of COP22 is in fact well aligned with our decades of transformative work in agriculture, including the development of an effective and dynamic sustainability standard (the SAN Standard), the training of more than 1.4 million farmers in vulnerable landscapes around the world, and the building of sustainable commodity supply chains through our certification system. Since we are intimately acquainted with the nuts and bolts of this work, we also appreciate the reality check given by Pershing about the resources that will be required to support the world’s 570 million farmers on their journey to long-term sustainability.

Although the outcome of the U.S. presidential election brings some uncertainty to these efforts, it is heartening to note that nine out of ten countries that have ratified the Paris agreement have included agriculture in their climate action plans. And in the days after the election, more than 300 huge brands called upon the president-elect to continue U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement. Hundreds more have made independent commitments to sustainability, ranging from removing deforestation from their supply chains to improving agricultural practices on the ground. As sustainability becomes a mainstream concern, public pressure is shifting attitudes in boardrooms, and other governments will continue to push their countries towards low-carbon economies.

This is both an important commitment by world leaders, a rousing call to action for businesses, and a mandate to double down on efforts for organizations like ours. One of the biggest and most complex questions is how to scale up sustainable agriculture while addressing challenges specific to various regions and crops. That’s why "continuous improvement" is a fundamental feature of the SAN standard, which is used to audit Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms. The SAN system is designed to bring farms in and move them up the ladder of sustainability in ways that are responsive to more localized challenges.

When Platanera Río Sixaola earned Rainforest Alliance certification in 1993, it was a milestone in sustainable agriculture (the banana farm remains certified to this day). Today, it is one of more than 1.2 million Rainforest Alliance certified farms in 45 countries that grow over 100 different crops. The Rainforest Alliance and the SAN are now working diligently to bring all of these farms in line with the 2017 SAN Standard, which becomes binding in July 2017. An important facet of this mammoth undertaking is a strengthened "continuous improvement" framework that measures performance levels throughout certification cycles. Farms must demonstrate continuous improvement over the years and reach the highest level of performance by the sixth year. 

In recognition of several high-priority conservation and human rights goals, the 2017 SAN standard still includes "critical criteria" that all certified farms must follow from the outset. These critical criteria emphasize essential issues that need to be addressed first in the farm's sustainability journey, strengthening the capacity of farmers to manage their operations, mitigate risks to workers and nearby communities, practice farming methods designed to eliminate deforestation and build climate resilience.  

Climate smart agriculture

Climate smart agriculture (CSA) is a system of methods that make farms more productive and resilient in the face of climate change, while reducing their climate impacts. The 2017 SAN Standard is the first certification scheme to integrate the principles of climate smart agriculture into its basic framework.

In the 2017 SAN Standard, farms are required to conduct ongoing climate risk assessments and formulate action plans to address specific climate threats. Different farms have different risk factors, and the farmers themselves are best placed to understand and address their specific challenges. The key is for farms to proactively build locally appropriate climate resilience practices into their management.

Action plans will vary by region but could include planting more diverse crops; planting trees to absorb GHG emissions; better soil management to improve the retention of water, organic fertilizer, and carbon; and/or reducing chemical pesticides. The widespread adoption of CSA, beginning with the 8.6+ million acres already covered by Rainforest Alliance certification, has the potential to significantly mitigate GHG emissions caused by farming. They can also help farms weather climate disruptions that might otherwise put them out of operation. 

Reducing pesticides and protecting pollinators

The 2017 SAN Standard includes the most rigorous framework yet for the implementation of integrated pest management methods and restrictions on the use of chemical substances.  It prohibits 150 chemical substances classified by the UN World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization as “highly hazardous,” including widely used pesticides like atrazine, and institutes strict safety measures governing the use of another 170 high-risk substances. These requirements are designed to reduce chemical use over time while minimizing risks to human health, wildlife, aquatic ecosystems, and pollinator species that facilitate the cultivation of three-quarters of the world’s leading food crops.

Although the 2017 SAN Standard prohibits pesticides in the "neonicotinoid" class, known to harm pollinator species, the plan for implementation illustrates the complex considerations in advancing sustainable agriculture. Neonics are currently used widely in the tropics, sometimes subsidized by governments, and they are often seen as the only viable pesticide option for smallholder farmers. Banning them overnight would mean financial ruin for nearly 1.3 million farmers in the Rainforest Alliance/SAN system. To balance the welfare of farmers with the goal of eliminating the use of these dangerous substances, the 2017 SAN Standard gives farmers three years to phase them out. In the meantime, they are temporarily permitted on farms where there is no viable alternative and must applied in ways that minimize risks for people and pollinator species. By July 2020, no certified farms can use these chemicals.

Protecting native ecosystems

Hundreds of companies around the world have pledged to fight climate change by eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. The 2017 SAN Standard offers one of the strongest frameworks for doing so by requiring Rainforest Alliance Certified farms to protect forests, as well as biodiversity-rich non-forest ecosystems like grasslands, from agricultural expansion. In fact, to be eligible for Rainforest Alliance certification, farms cannot have converted natural forests to grazing or cropland for at least five years.

Safeguarding worker rights

Recognizing the vital role workers play in long-term sustainability, the 2017 SAN Standard incorporates stricter mandatory requirements and a strong continuous improvement framework governing human rights, worker housing, sanitation, safety, gender and child labor protections, and living wage considerations. 

Although on-site inspections of certified farms happen annually, labor issues require continuous attention. The 2017 SAN Standard requires farms to provide effective channels for workers to air complaints and grievances and get them resolved quickly. In the interest of transparency, summaries of any farm certification process will be posted on the SAN website, to further support the engagement of workers and their organizations, as well as other actors.

The issue of a living wage is one of the most challenging considerations of any sustainability standard, given the sheer variability of economic development, the rule of law in producer countries, and international supply chain dynamics. The 2017 SAN Standard requires farms to demonstrate progress toward the provision of living wages, using a "basic-needs approach" that combines critical and continuous improvement criteria with planning processes for living wage payments led by the certified operation. Workers on certified farms must receive no less than the legal minimum wage of the applicable laws of the country, but the final goal is to ensure that farms pay a living wage. The Rainforest Alliance and the SAN are members of the Global Living Wage Coalition, a group of leading standards systems that have been working together to better define and achieve progress toward living wage in different supply chains.

The greatest opportunity

Climate change, the greatest global crisis in human history, calls upon people at every level of society to fight unprecedented environmental destruction and human suffering. Indeed, we can only address this crisis effectively if we do so together, with every single tool at our disposal, from bold international policy decisions to everyday actions by people around the world.

The Global Climate Action Agenda for COP22 called agriculture "the greatest opportunity…unrivaled in its potential to simultaneously address poverty, hunger, and climate change." Realizing that potential will require taking sustainable agriculture to a global scale, transforming the way crops are grown on hundreds of millions of farms, from the largest plantations to the tiniest smallholder plots. The 2017 SAN Standard provides the kind of dynamic, inclusive, and comprehensive accountability framework we’ll need to get there.

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