Targeted, voluntary sustainability standards for agriculture could deliver global environmental benefits
New research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides a first-ever global assessment of the ways in which sustainability standards led by non-profit, private and public organisations and driven by consumer and buyer demand—and voluntarily adopted by agricultural producers—can contribute to extensive environmental benefits, from reduced greenhouse gas emissions to decreased water use.
In collaboration with the Natural Capital Project, The Coca-Cola Company and other partners, a University of Minnesota-led research team evaluated the large-scale benefits of global implementation of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) for helping mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. These stakeholder derived principles include measurable criteria to promote sustainable production outcomes. Increasing adoption of these voluntary measures has sparked investigation into their environmental benefits, potential adverse effects and pathways to their successful implementation.
The researchers used Bonsucro, an international network of sugarcane professionals committed to a well-established set of VSS, as a case study. They modeled the impacts of adopting the Bonsucro standard across the sugarcane sector—either selectively or universally and under current and future crop expansion—and found a large potential for environmental and production efficiency benefits in either scenario.
Findings from this study suggests universal adoption of VSS would dramatically increase production tonnage in some parts of the world, while reducing:
- total geographic-production area by 24 percent;
- water use by 65 percent;
- nutrient loading by 34 percent;
- greenhouse gas emissions by 51 percent.
Under a scenario of doubled global sugarcane production, Bonsucro adoption would further limit water use and greenhouse gas emissions by preventing sugarcane expansion into water-stressed and high-carbon stock ecosystems. A key finding is that a strategy of targeting the 10 percent of land needed to maximize direct environmental benefits could still achieve more than half of the benefits of the universal-adoption future-doubling scenario.
“This type of analysis is sorely needed to advance sustainable consumption and production outcomes toward achieving sustainable development goals,” said Derric Pennington, a resident fellow of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and an adjunct assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “We showcase the potential global environmental benefits of sustainability standards and certification schemes while remaining realistic and comprehensive.”
“This world-class research provides the evidence that the Bonsucro standard is a highly effective framework for environmental protection in sugarcane production. Crucially, it also shows that application of the standard leads to increased sugarcane yields. Taken together this provides a clear case for greater uptake of the Bonsucro standard by sugarcane producers and buyers of sugarcane products; sugar, ethanol, molasses among others,” said Bonsucro Chief Executive Officer Danielle Morley. “As a science-based, metric standard scheme, Bonsucro is committed to continuous improvements and will use the study to inform the revision of the standard this year.”
To successfully implement VSS on a global scale, public- and private-sector incentives must outweigh the financial costs of adopting the standards.
“The Coca-Cola Company is committed to sourcing sustainable agricultural ingredients and we are working with our suppliers to demonstrate progress through voluntary sustainability standards, such as Bonsucro for sugarcane,” said Ulrike Sapiro, director of sustainability at The Coca-Cola Company, which provided partial support for the research. “We are very pleased that this study demonstrates Bonsucro’s potential of creating significant positive impacts for the environment and ecosystems, which is critical for further uptake by farmers and industry.”
“This report demonstrates that the Bonsucro standard can have a positive environmental impact if implemented more widely, and that sustainability standards can play a role in helping society and business meet demand without depleting biodiversity,” added Alex Bjork, director of private sector engagement at World Wildlife Fund, which also partnered on the research.
Contributors to the study say that further research must also consider the effects of anthropogenic climate change on the success of these voluntarily imposed regulations.
“This is a critical next step,” said lead author William Smith from the University of Arizona. “We know anthropogenic climate change is a major threat to sustainable development. Ideally, VSS should also increase resilience to such threats.”
Grace Becker is the Communications Assistant at IonE and an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies strategic communication, sustainability, and Spanish.
Support for this research was provided by the Luc Hoffmann Institute, World Wildlife Fund and The Coca-Cola Company Partnership, the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI/NSF funded DEVIL project (NE/M021327/1), NSF award 1540195, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch Project HAW01136-H managed by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.