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Towards a More Sustainable Future: Innovative Tools to Combat Climate Change and Promote Responsible Practices in the Agri-Food Sector

In the face of escalating climate change concerns, it has become imperative for the agri-food sector to adopt sustainable practices as it contributes approximately 31% of the world’s human-caused greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions.[1] Voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) have emerged in the last few decades as powerful tools to combat environmental degradation and foster a more resilient future, mainly in the agricultural, fisheries, and forestry sectors. This piece explores the significance of VSS and highlights innovative technologies being implemented by some of these standards that hold potential in addressing the urgent global challenge of climate change.

The Power of Voluntary Sustainability Standards

VSS play a pivotal role in shaping sustainable practices across sectors and industries. These tools provide guidelines, criteria, and promote practices that empower businesses, consumers, and policymakers alike to make informed choices that can benefit both the environment and society at large.[2] By increasingly adhering to these standards, value-chain actors commit to reducing their ecological footprint, minimizing waste, conserving resources, and promoting fair labour practices in several sectors.

In addition, several governments have started to consider the use of VSS in trade policy by, for instance, developing national regulatory frameworks that support or promote the development of certification schemes or by making references to these tools in sustainable procurement policies, free trade agreements, or in market access regulations and export-promotion measures.[3]

One example of this is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which sets standards for responsible forest management. Through certification and traceability systems, the FSC ensures that timber and other forest products originate from sustainably managed forests. Several countries like Mexico, Gabon, and the Republic of Korea recognize this certification as a proof of the legality of imported and domestically produced timber products. Similarly, the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil certification has been implemented by the Government of Indonesia as a mandatory requirement for all oil palm growers and millers operating in the country, with the objective of addressing environmental issues in the sector and improving the competitiveness of Indonesian palm oil in the global market.

Embracing Technology for Climate Solutions

While VSS provide a framework for responsible practices, emerging technologies hold immense promise in driving sustainable transformations across various sectors. Some VSS have started to support, promote, or develop a few notable innovations which show that the adoption of VSS has the potential to contribute addressing climate change:

  • Traceability systems: Some VSS have developed traceability systems and models that allow us to determine the region in which a crop was produced and identify the businesses involved in its transformation to a finished good. This is important, as legislation around the world is increasingly requiring business to demonstrate knowledge of their supply chains, not only on the origins of their raw materials but also the conditions under which they were produced. Rainforest Alliance is one of the VSS that has included traceability requirements in its criteria, and has developed a platform where cocoa farmers and buyers can record all purchases of certified cocoa, providing traceability from cocoa bean to final product, and giving users such as farmers and companies access to efficient mechanisms to report and to identify areas of risks or opportunities in the production of their raw materials.[4]  
  • Circular economy: The concept of a circular economy aims to eliminate waste by designing products with a focus on reusability, recyclability, and resource efficiency. Technologies like advanced recycling processes, composting, and product redesign facilitate the transition towards a circular economy, reducing the strain on finite resources. VSS like the Better Cotton Initiative are working towards driving the cotton, textile, and apparel industry towards more circularity by promoting spaces of discussion around the topic and supporting initiatives to turn old cotton clothing into nutrients for new cotton plants.[5]
  • Digital technology for better farming: As mentioned, agriculture is a significant contributor to GHG emissions and deforestation. The use of some technologies like Internet of Things sensors, artificial intelligence, and data analytics can enable optimized resource management, minimizing chemical usage and increasing crop yields sustainably. Some VSS like Rainforest Alliance are already implementing digital innovation programs to provide advice to farmers on how to adapt to climate change; this includes mobile communication technologies being used to guide farmers in remote locations to implement practices, such as pruning and replanting, which nurture soil health and increase climate resilience,. The standard is also exploring precision agriculture technologies, like piloting remote sensing of sickly trees, which is benefiting cocoa farmers in Ghana.[6]
  • Using satellite imagery to prevent deforestation: The roundtable on sustainable palm oil has developed several initiatives like the GeoRSPO, an interactive mapping platform that features concession maps submitted by RSPO-compliant growers, processors, and traders of palm oil as a mandatory requirement of the standard. This tool is designed to promote transparency in certified palm oil plantations as it features information like the location, plantation and company name, and certification status. The data is of free access, serving as a powerful analytical tool for statistical and geospatial analysis that permits detection of potential deforestation spots, tress cover loss, gain and density, climate data and others.[7]
  • Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): When it comes to mitigating the worst impacts of climate change, keeping excess carbon out of the atmosphere is the prime target for improving the planet’s health. One of the best ways to do that is thought to be locking more of that carbon into the soil that grows our food. Organic certification can provide a solution as it promotes several practices that can result in mitigating the impacts of climate change. For instance, organic farming consumes less energy and reduces GHG emissions; it also relies on establishing closed nutrient cycles and minimising nitrogen losses, reducing global agricultural GHG emissions by around 20%.

Organic certification usually provides a set of ecosystem services including biodiversity preservation, water management, soil health, and others that can result in increased carbon sequestration. Indeed, soil from organic farms had 26 percent more potential for long-term carbon storage than soils from conventional farms, in addition to 13 percent more soil organic matter.[8] According to IFOAM Organics Europe, organic agriculture often uses improved manure management such as manure composting which can reduce nitrous oxide and methane emissions from manure by 50% and 70% respectively, and has a higher energy efficiency and a lower energy use per hectare. It consumes around 15% less energy per unit produced compared to conventional agriculture.[9]

Achieving sustainability and combating climate change require collective efforts from governments, businesses, and individuals alike. Tools like VSS play a pivotal role in fostering responsible practices, ensuring accountability, and driving positive change in the agri-food sector. Moreover, these standards leverage innovative technologies looking to reduce GHG emissions, conserve valuable resources, and pave the way for a more sustainable future.

Value-chain actors and governments can further support the use and adoption of these tools. This will encourage the adoption of beneficial management practices for carbon sequestration and biodiversity protection in the agricultural sector, while also ensuring that farmers are duly rewarded for their efforts. Moreover, individuals must actively support sustainable choices and demand transparency from the products and services they consume. Addressing climate change is a necessity for the survival of our planet and future generations, and embracing improved agricultural practices and harnessing transformative technologies will pave the way towards a more sustainable and resilient world.

Steffany Bermúdez is Policy Advisor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Canada and author of several publications related to voluntary sustainability standards in key commodity sectors. She has a keen focus on sustainable production, consumption, trade, and economic inclusion.

[1] https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/11/1105172

[2] https://unctad.org/topic/trade-analysis/voluntary-sustainability-standards

[3] https://www.iisd.org/articles/sustainability-standards-public-procurement-trade-policy

[4] https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/business/certification/understanding-end-to-end-cocoa-traceability-and-the-multitrace-platform/

[5] https://bettercotton.org/investigating-how-textile-waste-could-become-nutrients-for-cotton-crops/

[6] https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/press-releases/winners-ag-tech-developer-challenge/

[7] https://rspo.org/as-an-organisation/tools/georspo/

[8] https://civileats.com/2017/09/11/new-study-shows-organic-farming-traps-carbon-in-soil-to-combat-climate-change/

[9] https://www.agriland.ie/farming-news/organic-farming-should-be-recognised-as-carbon-farming-ifoam/