Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

Certification standards could significantly help us meet our food, water and climate goals

Voluntary sustainability standards could significantly reduce the global detrimental environmental impacts of agriculture.

photo of article author
Derric Pennington
Do you know how the sugar that goes into your soda or candy contributes to climate change and water stress? Ever wonder how we can reduce those impacts? We had these same questions. Turns out, certification standards can be part of the answer.

Many soda and candy bars are full of sugar, and conventional sugar farming degrades and clears tropical forests and does other things that release a lot of CO2. Sugar also contributes to the development of hypoxic zones that threaten fisheries worldwide by excess nutrients to our waterways via overfertilization that accumulate in our estuaries and lakes.

These are big issues for the beverage and candy companies who purchase large quantities of sugar. One approach that companies have embraced to aid in achieving their climate and water commitments is buyer-led agricultural sustainability standards, often referred to as voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). These programs comprise a system of stakeholder-chosen principles along with measurable and enforceable criteria through certification to promote sustainable outcomes from producing agricultural products.

Since the early 1990s, non-governmental organizations — like the World Wildlife Fund — governments and business entities around the world have made significant strategic investments in these VSS and certification programs. The growth of both government and private-sector commitments to purchasing VSS-endorsed commodities highlights the market potential for VSS to create more sustainable food production around the globe.

Article continues after advertisement

While these commitments are numerous, our collective understanding of how much impact VSS can have on reducing agriculture’s negative impacts and targeting future adoption efforts have been elusive. Shrinking these knowledge gaps would help reassure society on the potential value of VSS and help increase support and uptake in VSS use by industries, producers, and governments.

In response to this challenge, WWF partnered with a global team of researchers and practitioners from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, Bowdoin College, University of Hawaii, University of Göttingen, Cornell University, Rainforest Alliance, and The Coca-Cola Company to develop modeling and scenario assessment approach to evaluate how much existing VSS or other approaches can help society and business meet food, fiber and fuel demand while minimizing environmental impacts contributing to climate change, water scarcity, eutrophication and loss of biodiversity.

We applied our approach to sugar and its global VSS, Bonsucro. Our findings were staggering and recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We found that global adoption of Bonsucro could significantly reduce the global detrimental environmental impacts of conventional sugarcane production. Key findings suggest universal adoption of Bonsucro 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.

Article continues after advertisement

These reductions are primarily the result of improved production efficiencies. For example, the reductions in nutrient and greenhouse gas emissions are driven by improving on-farm fertilizer management.

Industry experts predict a doubling in our sugarcane demand by 2050. Could future demand be met while also complying with Bonsucro’s standards?

We found that a global doubling of sugarcane production could be met under Bonsucro. While additional environmental impacts would occur to meet this doubling, Bonsucro would significantly minimize those impacts compared to doing so under current production standards. Moreover, Bonsucro would further limit water use and greenhouse gas emissions by preventing future sugarcane expansion into water-stressed and high-carbon stock ecosystems.

That expanded production under the Bonsucro prevents the direct conversion of natural lands, including forest and savanna ecosystems, is especially important given the growing trend of deforestation-free or land conversion-free commitments by the private sector. In addition to meeting conversion-free policy goals, Bonsucro’s standard also promotes production intensification and improves water and climate mitigation outcomes on-farm.

This stresses the value of multicriteria approaches and the potential shortcomings single-metric solutions.

Our framework can inform this goal and presents the opportunity for the agriculture VSS community to rigorously reassess standard design in a more explicit outcome-based and forward-looking way. Our science-based assessment approach could be applied to look at a variety of public and private mechanisms for improving conservation outcomes of land-use planning. Having a better understanding of how existing and future regulatory programs, like VSS, mitigate risk can help companies make better, more-informed decisions about their sourcing strategy.

So the next time you’re drinking your favorite soda or enjoying your favorite candy bar, remember to support the sustainability label.

Derric Pennington is 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 Science. He leads a research team of experts in ecology, economics and policy that includes academics and practitioners to help improve our understanding of when, where and how conservation can benefit both biodiversity and people in the context of real-world policy decisions. He is a former lead scientist working for World Wildlife Fund and the Natural Capital Project. At IonE, he was the project director of IonE’s partnership with WWF.

Article continues after advertisement


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)