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Sustainable crop certification helps people and nature but could do more for them

New map of certified farms highlights opportunities

African man collecting coffee cherries in East Africa (©

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

Where are commodity crops certified, and what does it mean for conservation and poverty alleviation?

Catherine Tayleur, Andrew Balmford, Graeme M. Buchanan, Stuart H. M. Butchart, Christine Corlet Walker, Heather Ducharme, Rhys E. Green, Jeffrey C. Milder, Fiona J. Sanderson, David H. L. Thomas, Lukasz Tracewski, Juliet Vickery, Ben Phalan

Biological Conservation, Volume 217, January 2018, Pages 36-46

When you buy coffee or a bar of chocolate, you might see a label on the package that shows the product was made sustainably. Crop certification schemes like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance provide standards that farmers can follow to show their crops are grown in a way that respects the environment and the producers. But how effective are these programs at tackling poverty and protecting biodiversity?

One part of the answer to this question lies in understanding where in the world crops are certified. According to an Atlas Award-winning study in Biological Conservation, certified farms are located in places where they can help biodiversity and reduce deforestation, but they could do more to help poor people in rural areas.

“When you go to the supermarket, you can't be sure of the production methods for all the things that you're buying. But something like a certification standard can give you some assurance that what you're buying has been produced in a way that is good for the environment and good for the farmers,” said Dr. Catherine Tayleur, lead author of the study from the University of Cambridge and The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Crop certification programs set out standards farmers have to meet in terms of protecting the environment, such as reducing water use and protecting biodiversity. The programs also provide many benefits to the farmers, who are often smallholders. They can offer a price premium and improve the farmers’ access to the market. Some focus on encouraging good agricultural practices that improve yields and profits.

The number of certification programs has exploded over the last decade, yet we know little about where they operate and whether they are best serving farmers and the environment in those locations.

The team collected data from different certification schemes to map more than one million farms, producing the first global map of commodity crop certification. The results show clusters of certification around the world, related to certain crops. Most of the certification, which excluded organic, was found in tropical areas, for example, coffee certification is common in Central America, cocoa certification in West Africa and palm oil certification in Southeast Asia. But often the poorest areas in those regions are missing out. According to the researchers, the map can be used to identify the best ways to strengthen and expand certification to support poor rural communities and to protect threatened species.

“Certification tends to operate in areas that are really important for biodiversity, so that's great news,” said Dr. Tayleur. “But despite over a million farmers being certified, we found that only around four percent of all crop growing areas globally had some certification in the region. We also found that certification wasn't operating in the poorest areas; it seemed to be missing some of those farmers that might benefit most from the livelihood aspects of certification.”

Dr. Tayleur and her colleagues have some suggestions to improve this, the first of which is to strengthen the certification standards. This would mean targeting the right issues within the standards, depending on where the crops are located – making requirements for biodiversity protection stricter in areas that are protected or are within the range of endangered species, for example. They also believe there is an opportunity for expansion, if it’s done strategically to address the gaps identified in the research.

“Certification is already providing benefits to small farmers producing coffee, cocoa and other crops in the developing world,” said Dr. Tayleur. “But there are challenges. Certification has costs involved that many small farmers can’t afford, and the requirements are often complex. Certification schemes could look to target poor areas and simplify their requirements, reduce their certification fees, or provide training to help those farmers come up to standard.”

There is one big challenge, which the programs will have to address if any of these solutions are to work: supply of certified products currently tends to outstrip demand. While there has been a notable increase in consumer awareness of sustainability issues, the certification schemes will only have a big impact if shoppers are demanding certified sustainable products.

A conversation with Catherine Tayleur

In this podcast Dr. Catherine Tayleur talks about global crop certification, why some of the world’s poorest farmers are missing out on the benefits, and what the certification schemes can do to improve their impact. Listen now

What kind of sustainability standards are available for commodity crops, and what are they hoping to achieve?

There's a whole range of different sustainability standards; some have more of a focus on social benefits, like Fairtrade, and some have much more of a biodiversity focus, like the Rainforest Alliance. All of these schemes tend to have criteria that relate to both environmentally and socially sustainable production practices. The idea is that if farmers follow the criteria these schemes create, they’ll produce a sustainable product. Consumers can then look for those certified products.

Who benefits from this certification and how does it work?

Starting off with the farmers, lots of schemes offer a price premium and they might also improve the farmers’ market access. For some markets, like coffee, it’s now really competitive and quite often you need your product to be certified in order to be able to sell it. At the other end of the spectrum, some certification schemes focus more on encouraging good agricultural practice to improve the farmer's yield.

Consumers also benefit – when you go to the supermarket, you can't be sure of the production methods for all the things that you're buying. But something like a certification standard can give you some assurance that what you're buying has been produced in a way that is good for the environment and good for the farmers.

Why did you decide to study this? Can you tell us a bit about the research?

In an earlier paper, we did a census of all the areas in the world that have been certified. Despite the rapid increase in the number of certification schemes, we found that still only around one percent of global cropland is certified.

Certification could be a really useful tool for improving biodiversity or people’s livelihoods, but it’s still quite limited in scope. We wanted to know whether it’s operating where we really need it to, in order to have the most impact. We created the first global map of certified farmers, and then looked at where certified farms were in relation to areas of biodiversity and poverty.

What were your main findings?

We collected data from different certification schemes and mapped the locations of around one million different farmers. We found that there are really distinct clusters of certification globally – there’s lot of certification in Central America, particularly in relation to coffee growing, in West Africa you see a lot of cocoa certification, and in Southeast Asia you see a lot of oil palm certification. But despite over a million farmers being certified, only around four percent of all crop growing areas globally had some certification in the region.

What do you think needs to be done to increase the impact of crop certification?

For our analysis, we had to combine data across certification schemes, but ideally each individual scheme should complete a mapping process for their own certified farmers. Once they’ve done that, we have a few different suggestions on how they could increase their impact.

The first is to strengthen their standards. For example, if their farmers operate in areas important for biodiversity, they might strengthen relevant criteria within their standard, ensure that it's essential for farmers in those regions to comply with biodiversity criteria, or supply targeted training to those farmers to ensure that they are farming in the best way.

Certification schemes can also look at strengthening their work by using mapping data in conjunction with audit data. An audit can tell us how a farmer is doing against certain criteria – for example, is he leaving enough area around water sources, or setting aside the right amount of natural habitat on the farm?

We also think there are opportunities for certification schemes to expand, but to do so strategically to help address some of the gaps that we identified in our analysis. Certification schemes could look to target poor areas and simplify their requirements, reduce their certification fees, or provide training to help those farmers come up to standard.

What are the main challenges you think certification schemes are going to face, and how can they overcome them?

So far, recruitment of farmers to certification hasn’t really been done in a strategic or targeted way; it really would need a change in thinking as to how certification schemes recruit farmers. And on top of that, there is still a limited market for certification – there’s actually quite a lot more certified product being produced than sold. So certification schemes really need to increase the demand for their products before they can promote further expansion.

Comment By Vincent Devictor, Biological Conservation, Editor in Chief

Sometimes, showing is almost acting. We are very proud at Biological Conservation to welcome this major contribution. I consider this paper as making very strategic connections between several and too often separated topics: poverty alleviation, agricultural and food policies and practices, biodiversity conservation, and environmental justice.

We have accumulated many studies showing how land use and agricultural policies were generally not compatible with conservation objectives. Worth, massive land conversions have been positively and recurrently related to habitat and biodiversity loss worldwide and are also often responsible for weakening local traditional knowledge and justice. The effectiveness of specific agricultural policies to tackle biodiversity conservation is also very controversial.

In this paper, Catherine Tayleur and her colleagues adopt a global and very original perspective in mapping the first high-resolution and global distribution of certified crops along with proxies for biodiversity and poverty levels. They observed encouraging congruencies (between certified crops and biodiversity issues) but also challenging mismatches (between certified crops and poorer areas) and many regional specificities.

These results open a new research and policy agenda towards a better understanding of how crop certification, conservation, and livelihood should be considered together. Almost equally important is the clear recognition that their general findings rest on correlations and that their study is only meant to serve as a basis for deeper research and more specific explanations.  Whether crop certification can contribute effectively to biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation remain to be investigated. But their paper offers the necessary starting point for such agenda.

Further reading

Biological Conservation

Biological Conservation is an international journal in the discipline of conservation biology. The journal publishes articles spanning a diverse range of fields that contribute to the biological, sociological, and economic dimensions of conservation and natural resource management.

Elsevier Atlas

Science impacts everyone's world. With over 2,500 journals publishing articles from across science, technology and health, our mission is to share some of the stories that matter. Each month Atlas showcases research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world or has already done so. We hope that bringing wider attention to this research will go some way to ensuring its successful implementation.

With so many worthy articles published the tough job of selecting a single article to be awarded "The Atlas" each month comes down to an Advisory Board. The winning research is presented alongside interviews, expert opinions, multimedia and much more on the Atlas website.

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Written by

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

Written by

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

After a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.


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