By Emily Folk
Industrial agriculture is the norm in most of North America. But as population levels rise and concerns grow about natural resources like soil and water, more and more farmers are making sustainable agriculture a top priority. But is seeking sustainable certification worth it — does sustainability really have a positive impact on the environment? And what are the costs and benefits for farmers of being certified sustainable?
What is Sustainable Agriculture?
There's no easy definition for sustainable agriculture — it's a complex idea with many different approaches. You can, however, break down what sustainable agriculture is about into a few broad goals:
● Water management
● Maintaining or improving local environmental health
● Building and maintaining soil health
● Defending biodiversity
As a practice, sustainable agriculture works with nature rather than against it, as is the case with most forms of industrial agriculture. When a farm is sustainable, it can be thought of as part of its local environment rather than just exploiting that environment.
The Impact of Sustainable Agriculture
Major benefits for the local environment. The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and Rainforest Alliance published a report in 2015 on the impacts of farmers who had become Rainforest Alliance Certified and met the SAN standards.
Almost universally, sustainable agriculture had significant positive impacts on the local environment. In El Salvador, sustainable farms not only saw greater biodiversity in terms of migratory birds, these farms also had the same number of species as natural, uncultivated forest. In Kenya, one tea farm planted native plants along a dry riverbed, which resulted in the water returning and the stream being brought back to life. And those farmers' safer use of agrochemicals also reduced their ailment rate.
Typically, we think of agriculture as highly disruptive to the local environment. With sustainability standards, it's possible to farm in a way that works with the environment and preserves much of the local biodiversity. (The products produced by sustainable agriculture are also usually higher-quality than those produced by non-sustainable farms — and for certain products like cocoa, yields were higher, too.)
The Benefits of Sustainable Certifications
Unlike organic produce, the USDA does not tightly regulate what products can and can't call themselves sustainable. Consumers instead rely on certifications to communicate which sustainability standards and practices farmers are following.
When talking about sustainably-grown food, there are a few different standards that are the most common. While the Rainforest Alliance/SAN standard is popular abroad, it is mostly geared toward farmers in developing economies — according to the SAN report, no farmers in the U.S. or Canada were SAN-certified in 2015.
One of the most popular standards for farmers in the United States is SCS's Sustainably Grown standard. The SCS standard is designed to match/fulfill international benchmarks for sustainable agriculture, making it one of the most relevant and comprehensive measures of a farm or ranch's sustainability.
But is certification necessary for farmers? Wouldn't a commitment to sustainability be enough to provide results?
The SAN report showed that certified farmers were the most committed to sustainability and that their sustainability practices typically improved over time. And most standards are revised regularly — sustainability isn't treated as a goal so much as a process for farmers. To stay certified, and benefit from the premium prices of those certified goods, farmers are incentivized to make their farms more sustainable year after year.
Sustainable Agriculture and Certifications
Sustainable agriculture can improve the quality of food and make food production more efficient. And sustainable certification will help farmers become more prepared for the challenges that the 21st century will pose to agriculture. By improving certifications year after year, farmers will become more sustainable over time.
The costs of becoming sustainable certified do exist — for farmers, it will require a real change in how they think about agriculture's relationship to the environment. But these costs may be outweighed by increases in efficiency and food quality and the need for sustainable farming practices in the future.