HomeDiscoveryNatural Capital ProjectPandas and agricultural best practices at IonE

Pandas and agricultural best practices at IonE

There’s a panda at the Institute on the Environment — a World Wildlife Fund “panda,” that is. Derric Pennington, a senior conservation scientist with WWF and part of Natural Capital Project–WWF, has taken up residency here and is collaborating with IonE on several research projects, including one with The Coca-Cola Company and the Luc Hoffman Institute to assess just how effective sustainability certification standards are at improving our environmental footprint.

Sustainability certification of a commodity is like a best-management-practices treaty among stakeholders in the commodity’s supply chain. Take the Bonsucro certification standard, for example. A worldwide sugar cooperative, Bonsucro requires “producers, buyers and others involved in sugar and ethanol businesses to obtain products derived from sugarcane that have been produced according to agreed, credible, transparent and measurable criteria . . .  that promote measurable improvements in the key economic, environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production,” according to its website. 

In the case of sugar, as in most commodities, the environmental impacts include those affecting ecosystem services such as water use, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

This is where WWF comes in. One of the world’s largest conservation groups is expanding their scope to research how ecosystem services can benefit both people and wildlife. Pennington is helping inform the organization about whether certification can help agribusinesses that buy agricultural commodities such as sugar, palm oil, soy and timber influence the sustainability of their production. If so, it could greatly improve conservation outcomes.

“We want to know, what are the environmental implications of adopting commodity certification?” says Pennington. “If we did adopt 100 percent of certification requirements, what are the expected outcomes?” The answer to those questions can help inform the management decisions of the businesses that produce or purchase the commodities or the policy decisions of the governments that regulate them, he says.

Derric Pennington collaborating with Bonnie Keeler

Pennington working with Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist of the Natural Capital Project. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Keeler.

To get at these answers, Pennington is teaming up with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative andNatural Capital Project strategic initiatives to develop computer models that will map and quantify the influence of commodity standards on things such as species habitat, water quality and carbon sequestration.

“IonE has the opportunity to distill big questions and illuminate ways going forward. They bring excellence and relevance to scientific study – that’s why you partner with IonE,” says Pennington. His team will apply the models to future land use scenarios (such as alternative climates and differing demand levels for food and fuel) as well as varying adoption rates of commodity standards to predict what the net change in environmental, economic and social outcomes would be in 2050.

How does The Coca-Cola Company fit in? The company purchases commodities for its soft drinks and other products from suppliers all over the world. The company has a goal to source sustainably produced agricultural commodities and actively encourages the adoption of sustainable best practices throughout its supply chain.

Ensuring the sustainable production of corn, which The Coca-Cola Company uses in many of its beverages, is of particular interest. To zoom in on the local impacts of sustainable corn production on ecosystem services and how adoption of best management practices could improve the sustainability of corn’s supply chain, the team will conduct an on-the-ground case study with farmers and others in the supply chain in the Middle Cedar Watershed in Iowa. The Nature Conservancy and DuPont Pioneer are also partners on the project.

“We’ll be looking at spatially explicit practices and measuring things like water quality and carbon sequestration, mapping and assessing a value for those ecosystem services,” says Pennington. He predicts the project will show that incorporating the value of ecosystem services into our food system will likely come with a higher price tag because these values are not currently included in the commodity marketplace.

Pennington says there are several questions to consider. “Are prices too low for commodities? Should consumers or companies pay more for commodities that maintain or improve ecosystem services? Or should incentives to producers come from the federal and local government?”

There are more questions than answers, Pennington admits, but he expects the project to be influential. “Corporations have leverage. If they all made a commitment to only purchase commodities grown with certain BMPs, it could have a major impact on conservation.”

Banner photo: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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