Establishing certification standards for forestry and agricultural commodities is no straightforward matter, particularly for smallholder farmers.
Voluntary standards of the type designed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensure timber and non-timber forest products are produced according to sustainability standards and audited by a third party. They have been used to tackle deforestation, forest degradation and ensure ethical trading practices for more than 30 years.
As demand for agricultural commodities posing a substantial risk to forests – such as cocoa, coffee, palm oil and soy – continues to grow, researchers are conducting studies to learn more how certification standards are adopted and the pitfalls that can lead to failure.
These efforts are crucial to address the matrix of environmental crises complicated by increasing food demand, including climate change, deforestation and landscape degradation.
“Many variables must be taken into consideration throughout the entire value chain of any given crop but their uptake by smallholder farmers is a goal worth achieving,” said Andrew Wardell, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).
“We’ve seen a plethora of sustainability initiatives and a diverse array of instruments and tools to promote deforestation-free sourcing as a way to reduce exposure to reputational, financial and regulatory risks but little coherence between them.”
Wardell was speaking at the World Forestry Congress in Seoul at a session hosted by CIFOR-ICRAF focused on public and private sustainability efforts in and beyond supply chains to promote greater inclusion of smallholders and small and medium enterprises.
By some estimates smallholdings — farms under 2 ha — are responsible for roughly 30 percent of total crop production and about 30 percent of food supply on a quarter of agricultural lands worldwide.
Value chains tend to be complex, making oversight of production processes in the field difficult, while creating hurdles in product tracing and leading to challenges around attribution and accountability.
“We are seeing ways that the public and private sectors can work together in the field and along value chains,” said Michael Brady, team leader of Value Chains, Finance and Investment at CIFOR-ICRAF, during the panel, which explored some of the many challenges to implementing public and private sustainability initiatives through four case studies.
“Pressures exist from consumers, banks, shareholders, governments and others to develop a way to promote deforestation-free commodities and reduce risk exposure.”
Brady worked with FSC to develop a new certification standard available for use by the 550 million smallholders in the Asia-Pacific region facing many constraints, including lack of understanding, and low earnings which make payment for required audits prohibitive.
The initiative, the Asia-Pacific Regional Forest Stewardship Standard for Smallholders (RFSS), was designed to create indicators relevant to local circumstances to help them gain access to markets. Simplified language was used, and indicators were adapted to apply to smallholder plantations, timber from plantations and non-timber forest products from plantations in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
“We found this to be well received so far,” Brady said. “We are supporting the four countries to use the RFSS to develop their own national standard, which will then be field tested before being adopted, and hopefully more countries to follow.”
Read also Asia-Pacific Regional Forest Stewardship Standard for Smallholders
The cocoa trade in Cameroon is facing various domestic challenges just as pressure is growing in European consuming countries for sustainable organic or deforestation-free cocoa, said Guillaume Lescuyer, a senior associate at CIFOR and France’s Agency for International Development (CIRAD).
Due in large measure to a lack of state support, conflict in the southwest of the country and a drop in prices, cocoa is being harvested at less than half of projected yields detailed in the 2014 Cocoa Development Plan.
However, in the past six years, certification has risen from 3 percent to about 25 percent to meet European import requirements, he said. His research covered non-certified forest-based producers, non-certified producers who grow cocoa in the shade in agroforestry systems, and certified cocoa farmers operating in grazing areas.
Working with Rainforest Alliance, Lescuyer interviewed 63 farmers and learned that farmers benefiting from certification support are earning 15 to 24 percent more than those that are uncertified. This is partly due to their capacity to get a higher price for their cocoa, partly because they receive subsidies for improving their cultivation practices.