· Farmers and producers can focus on one set of criteria for reporting and certification activities, saving valuable time and resources. This is especially important in agriculture where farmers often grow different crops from year to year (e.g. soil-enriching rotations, shifts in market drivers).
· Consistent labor standards would be more effective where farm workers rotate between farms and crops throughout a year.
· Brands and other supply chain partners would only having to manage, measure, and communicate a common set of criteria and impacts.
· Consumers likely would have a better understanding of (and possibly commitment to) certifications that are more consistent in their meaning across different products and standards.
I believe that harmonized standards – that are also simple and flexible – will lead to wider adoption and thus an overall bigger positive impact. With this in mind, I have given thought to the question of how to harmonize standards as I work within and around many different certification systems and agriculture roundtables in various capacities. How effective standards and certification schemes are in achieving their intended objectives is another important topic I have given much thought (and have written about in past newsletters).
I was facilitating a biofuels regulations and voluntary standards workshop recently when such a question was raised. A participant asked presenters from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “If you were to have a standard focus on one criteria, what would it be?”
I could not miss this opportunity to share my proposed answer to the very question I have asked myself many times. I was quite confident in my response: the optimization of soil health. The optimization of soil health is one of the most (if not the most) critical conditions we must meet to ensure productive agriculture. Healthy soil will more efficiently provide required nutrients to a plant and improve: water retention, tolerance to limited rainfall (lessening irrigation demand), and a plant’s ability to resist disease and damage by pests. Farmers can be encouraged to optimize soil health through the use of organic fertilizers, no-till operations, and proper crop rotation – all practices that can easily be understood and implemented by most farmers. I believe that such basic and simple practices, with other supporting mechanisms in place (e.g. education opportunities, social support services), many of the impacts sought by standards would be natural outcomes of their focused attention on soil health. Improved soil health should reap a higher yield, resulting in a higher income, sufficient supply to meet increasing demands, and lessening the conversion of biodiverse land for agricultural production. Healthy soils uptake carbon dioxide, capturing and storing greenhouse gases.
Farmers are more likely to succeed if they are asked to focus on one objective that directly aligns with their core business and area of expertise. If harmonized standards require farmers to spread their resources and attention over many issues – most of which are not as directly relevant to their day to day lives or for which they feel they don’t have direct influence (e.g. cultural shifts in gender equality, availability of education) – then their success will be weakened by being pulled in too many directions. Standards and certification bodies and other stakeholders within the agricultural community could measure and communicate the direct or indirect benefits that come out of optimizing soil health. Harmonizing a standard with a focus on soil health would result in benefits for all of the players mentioned at the beginning of this piece – the farmers, the brands, and consumers – improving likelihood of wide scale adoption.
Going back to the question that was posed at the workshop, I think it is interesting to note that both the UNEP and FAO representatives responded to the question with the same response: land rights. While I agree that land rights are critical to improving agriculture production and social justice, I propose that requiring soil health standards would contribute to improved respect of land rights, as governments would see the economic and social benefits of improved soil health along with evidence that farmers tend to take better care of the land they own over land that they only lease or otherwise access.
I hope more sincere efforts to harmonize standards and certification schemes around a few meaningful criteria such as soil health are pursued. I am confident that it will have a positive overall impact – which is the simple goal I believe we all seek to achieve.