What does “sustainable” food and agriculture really mean?

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The Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA), joined by the five UN agencies of the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards and leading global firms, recently launched “The COSA Measuring Sustainability Report”.

Until now, we had either very limited or very costly ways to measure the sustainability issues that dominate global discussions on food and agriculture. The UN, World Bank and others have already stated that most farmers face the considerable threat of deteriorating environments and lower real incomes. This is especially true for many of the 2.5 billion people living and working on small farms that are classed as poor. It is imperative that we better understand what farming methods are sustainable.

COSA President, Daniele Giovannucci said, “Multi-billion dollar market segments now integrate no less than 435 sustainability standards or “eco-labels” claiming some aspect of sustainability. Some of these initiatives are a response to the failure of policies to deliver results in the most critical aspects of our food supplies. So, it is becoming increasingly important to actually measure how effective or how sustainable any initiative or policy really is.”

Today some of the world’s biggest food companies are joining governments and development agencies to actively address sustainable practices in developing countries. Mars, Unilever, Starbucks, Nestle, and McDonalds are among the firms now investing in new approaches to help them understand what makes the farmers in their supply chains more or less sustainable. However, with very few evidence-based assessments to evaluate the impacts in comparable and transparent ways, most are at a disadvantage.

"The important question is: how do sustainability initiatives actually affect the sustainability of farmers, communities and the environment? COSA, working together in many global partners, offers credible insights and understanding of what can make the future of agriculture a more sustainable one," said Ulrich Hoffman, Coordinator of the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards.

The launch of the “COSA Measuring Sustainability Report” is a result of COSA’s seven year venture to address the absence of credible and consistently comparable data.  In collaboration with hundreds of organizations and experts, COSA evolved a common set of standardized indicators and practical ways to measure them. COSA’s investment was backed by the Swiss Government (SECO), the Ford Foundation, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the InterAmerican Development Bank and others to help governments, firms, and producer groups to understand these issues in useful ways. The report presents surprising findings, unexpected results, and useful lessons, including:

  • Higher yields can correlate with better environmental practices – they are not mutually exclusive.
  • Results for Sustainability Standards are very context specific: good in some areas and weak in others.
  • The overall tendency of certified producers is positive on many scores (yields, income, training) but differences in some key indicators such as food security are inconsistent and many small farmers still lack core needs such as adequate food.
  • Multiple sustainability certifications correlate to more, not less, income, but only up to a point.

“There are interesting applications for such new types of sustainability data that include tracking the geospatial effects of interventions in order to understand supply chain dynamics and the use of efficiency measurements to suggest new ways that we can work with farmers to reduce costs and improve yields. It is these managerial applications of reliable data that can really move the needle in terms of results,” explained Giovannucci.

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IL  |  March, 31, 2014 at 02:02 PM

Is 100 years of continuous corn on the same field sustainable enough? Is thousands of years of agriculture sustainable enough? Why are we even talking about sustainability in agriculture when we have already proven it many years ago?

USA  |  April, 03, 2014 at 12:01 PM

Dirt- the erosion of civilization! Read it!

USA  |  April, 03, 2014 at 12:02 PM

Dirt- the erosion of civilization! Read it!

Tim Gieseke    
mn  |  April, 03, 2014 at 03:19 PM

250Farce - I think natural capital is the core of the sustainability question; can we gain economically from our current and future stock of natural capital. Where I farm, we have 2-3 feet of topsoil, but in some areas we have lost a foot or so in the last 100 years. So the natural capital is still adequate - plenty of production capacity left, but it is not unlimited. Sustainability means you have not reached the limits of natural capital, or in my case, sustainability means you are not going to reach the limits.

IL  |  April, 10, 2014 at 10:47 AM

One of the truths in nature is that matter cannot be destroyed or created. Eroded topsoil from the Midwest finds good use downstream in the MS delta. Your own land has been enriched by sand from the Sahara and even meteorites from space. I think "sustainability" falls under what Paul Harvey used to say - "Just so you don't run out of things to worry about." We have to broaden our horizon as farmers . . ., I think.

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