Marrying rights-based and market-based approaches to sustainable food

A few years before the first Rio Earth Summit, the world faced massive threats to biodiversity as we lost about 35,000 acres a day Amazon rainforest a day. That was the genesis of my organization, the Rainforest Alliance, founded 25 years ago. Since deforestation was driven largely by land clearing for unsustainable agriculture, we quickly realized that protecting the Amazon’s rainforests would require implementing sustainable agriculture in the region.

A generation later, as the Rio+20 process considers how to mitigate climate change, forest and biodiversity loss and other disruptions in global environmental systems, agriculture remains at the heart of our problems and solutions. It’s the most impactful human activity on the planet bar none, and its impacts are growing, but whether for good or ill depends on choices we make now.

We’re now familiar with the cycle of ill effects: Population growth and global food demand, as well as spiking demand from emerging economies eating higher on the food chain, incentivize more forest clearing and slash-and-burn, chemical-intensive, unsustainable farming. That accelerates climate change as well as water, soil and biodiversity loss, which in turn increasingly cuts yields and threatens future supplies and current livelihoods. This affects the outlook on food security and future supply, and the economics and politics of the global food system. 

In producer countries, it isn’t hard to imagine how damage to livelihoods, food security and the environment could look like effects of the global food system, causing suspicion of international markets and institutions, and prompting demands for food sovereignty and a rights-based approach to the Rio process.

But at the same time, global food can also be a virtuous cycle with scaled, positive impacts, as the sustainable certification movement has shown. Certification schemes like the Rainforest Alliance integrate environmental, social and economic sustainability into production and sourcing practices across entire supply chains, transforming the way crops are grown and putting resource-based livelihoods on a sustainable footing. Rainforest Alliance-certified farms meet strict independent standards that implement sustainable practices, stop deforestation, and protect ecosystems and biodiversity. They also improve conditions for workers, reduce energy, chemical and water usage, and increase efficiency, yields and viability for farmers. 

Uptake of these schemes is accelerating. Last year, the number of Rainforest Alliance-certified farms increased over 200 percent, certified coffee production increased 20 percent, certified cocoa production increased 75 percent and certified tea tripled.

As it catches on, sustainability certification ultimately transforms markets, turning certified crops from mere commodities into a culture celebrating quality, sustainability and justice as interconnected values. Now a multibillion dollar market, certified sustainable agriculture has exploded since 2000 and continues to grow rapidly. Sustainability standards generally now cover 10 percent of the entire global economy. Rainforest Alliance-certified agricultural products now account for significant and rapidly rising shares of their global markets, including 3.3 percent of coffee, 9.4 percent of tea and 15 percent of bananas. 

The size and power of global markets serves to scale up the positive impacts of sustainability certification. Not only is it demonstrably protecting forests and biodiversity around the world. For farmers worldwide, certification is also reducing costs, increasing efficiency and raising incomes - most dramatically in poor countries like Nicaragua. It is sustaining livelihoods and greatly improving working conditions, from cocoa farms in West Africa to the coffeelands of Latin America. As it expands, certification is also pushing into impactful new areas and seeding change there. For example, certified climate-friendly coffee farming now helps farmers reduce emissions, adapt better to climate change impacts and eventually benefit from carbon-offset income. Certified responsible cattle ranching enables vastly more efficient use of grazing land, directly addressing the worst single source of land degradation and a powerful driver of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

These impacts are increasingly converting the vicious cycle of unsustainable agriculture into a virtuous one, conserving instead of cannibalizing environmental resources, mitigating and adapting to climate change instead of stoking it, empowering local food production instead of undermining it, making resource-based livelihoods safer, more just and sustainable instead of scarcer, and enhancing instead of endangering food security. 

It’s an illustration of why the Rio+20 process is right to focus on building a green economy that taps the power of markets to take positive environmental and social change to scale, beyond the scope of what governments or treaties can do by themselves. Citizen sector organizations are also right to demand food sovereignty and security and environmental protection as basic rights. The rights-based and market-based approaches need to be not just balanced, but married, and their mutual dependency recognized. It is essential that the Rio process promulgate these basic rights for all, and implement the on-ground practices that will respect them. At the same time, to truly extend these rights around the world, we need the power of markets, harnessed to sustainability.

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About the author

  • Tensie whelan profile

    Tensie Whelan

    Tensie Whelan is the president of the Rainforest Alliance. She was previously the vice president of conservation information at the National Audubon Society, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, and managing editor of Ambio, an international environmental journal based in Stockholm. Whelan also serves on the the advisory board of Social Accountability International as well as the Unilever Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board, and she is the co-chair of the Sustainable Food Lab's steering committee.