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Natural Resources Institute: A Review of the Literature and Knowledge of Standards and Certification Systems in Agricultural Production and Farming Systems

Researchers at the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) and the University of Leeds have published a new working paper in the NRI series on sustainable standards entitled “A Review of the Literature and Knowledge of Standards and Certification Systems in Agricultural Production and Farming Systems.” The paper outlines the rise of private standards in agriculture and explores their social, economic and environmental impacts. 

The study reviews the market demand and supply of certified products, and summarises the impact methodologies, activities of standard bodies, and the findings or evidence to date. It brings together evidence about production and market trends in certification schemes, assesses the extent to which standards are contributing to environmental, social and economic sustainability, and discusses their relationship to other tools, ending with a discussion of public awareness and communication issues.

Here are some of the key findings for each section in the report:

1. The market demand for and supply of certified products

  • The market for sustainably certified agricultural products continues to grow at a global level but the rates of growth in some geographical regions may be slowing down. Consumer demand for certified products is segmented and certain categories of ethical consumers are continuing to choose certified products even in recession conditions, but data are limited.
  • Demand for certified products is shaped not only by individual consumer decisions, but societal factors (including media and NGOs) and also government and institutional purchasing decisions.
  • While key certification standards are multi-stakeholder, some are increasingly influenced by the private sector through the growing competition and mutual influencing of standards processes.
  • Growth in the market for certified products has been affected by corporate decisions to adopt labels for categories of products, particularly for Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.

2. Knowledge of impacts: methodologies and findings

  • The complexity of assessing whether an intervention (e.g. a certification scheme) is contributing to environmental sustainability and economic and social impact is a very live research area. It is thus unlikely that an impact assessment on a product-by-product basis can address the issue of increases in sustainability. Impact assessments in this area must be continued, extended, and supported.

3. Relative effectiveness of certification schemes

  • There remains considerable work to be done to assess how standards interact with other mechanisms for improving social and environmental impacts and practices, including government regulation and other value chain interventions. This will require the development of new methodological frameworks as well as better understanding of current trends.

4. What is known about the communication of standards to the public?

  • Researchers are slowly unpacking the fallacy that more information and awareness leads simply to more consumption of ethical or labelled products.
  • Stringency and enforcement of a standard and the effect on consumption have two competing effects. Researchers suggest that where stringent and well-enforced standards lead to higher costs, demand for the certified product can be subsequently depressed. But what can also occur is that stringent and well-enforced standards elevate the credibility of a governance scheme in the eyes of consumers, which can lead to an increase in demand.

For the full report, click here.

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