By Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“We are working toward a very innovative standard, and we believe producers will feel that they obtain more value by being Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM.”
The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is a coalition of leading conservation organizations in America, Africa, Asia, and Europe that promotes the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices stipulated in the SAN’s Standards for Sustainable Agriculture, created in 1997. More than one million farms in 40 countries comply with the standard and have earned Rainforest Alliance certification, helping to ensure that they produce their crops in ways that respect ecosystems, wildlife, workers, and local communities.
In 2012, the SAN began updating its standards using the latest scientific and technical knowledge, a process that will finish later this year, with the new standards scheduled to be published in January of 2016. The SAN considers this update to be its most ambitious effort to date. Andre de Freitas, SAN’s Executive Director, spoke with us about the SAN’s update, its challenges and strengths, and what this renovation means for one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive certification programs.
Question: What factors motivated the SAN to update its standards?
De Freitas: Periodic review is a good practice in managing certification standards because we know we can always improve. But in this review, we are taking two things into account: first, our reality has changed dramatically and today the largest areas certified under the SAN standard is in Africa and Asia, not in Latin America, as it was when the standard was originallydeveloped. On those continents, there are different geographical realities and the producer groups have very different characteristics, needs, and challenges, and so we needed to adapt the standard. Secondly, rather than simply update the standard, we wanted to do a thorough revision that would force us to make more difficult changes aimed toward achieving three key aspects: to have a simpler standard, to create a standard that is more focused on asking producers to obtain results and less on telling them they should do things in one way or another, and to achieve a system more focused on generating impacts at a landscape level.
Q: What challenges and opportunities are posed by updating the standard?
De Freitas: We have a tremendous opportunity to involve the users of our certification system, and it has become an excellent communication channel with producers, companies, various NGOs, governments, and others. Over the years, we have gathered a lot of valuable knowledge that motivates and guides the changes we need, but it is during the update that we are able to sit down and talk to people about how the standard works for them and what challenges they face. The challenge is to now summarize the enormous amount of contributions we received online and in workshops, while leaving out nothing.
Q: What have been the logistical challenges in obtaining information from so many stakeholders? How many people have participated in this update?
De Freitas: The work is arduous and involves holding workshops in several countries, webinars, keeping an online hub for public consultation, sending out electronic surveys, and doing trial audits with new drafts. This process began in 2012 and I would say about 2,000 people from 50 countries have participated. Fortunately, as a network, we have a good support system; all our partners have given us tremendous support and they have led many workshops without our having to ask. Between the SAN team and our partners, there are 80-100 people working on this process.
Q: What has been the response and the participation of the different sectors?
De Freitas: All sectors related to sustainable agriculture, both large and small producers, have shown a lot of interest and have been involved in the process. This is a topic that interests them and they want to express their concerns and needs. We are working to find the balance between these diverse interests.
Q: What is the greatest strength of the new standard?
De Freitas: We are working toward a very innovative standard, and we believe producers will feel that they obtain more value by being Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM. It is a more complete standard because we are merging the SAN Climate Module with the standard for sustainable cattle production; previously these were separate documents. At the same time, it is a simpler and generally shorter standard, but no less rigid; this facilitates the inclusion of producers in the certification system and they progress gradually to higher levels of sustainability over time. By focusing on results, the producers see that implementation of the standard actually generates positive changes on their farms and they will now receive more support and guidance from us. We are also refining the standard so that its implementation generates benefits for producers, which is why we strengthened the areas for increasing productivity and profits.
Q: How will you provide this additional support?
De Freitas: We have already launched a learning and support team that is specifically meant to provide producers with tools that were developed by SAN partners. In countries where SAN partners are located, this support role will be in their hands, and we will be in charge of training the trainers and continuing to create new tools.
Q: How can the standard help producers have better earnings and higher productivity?
De Freitas: The standard promotes practices that help producers better understand their investments, costs, and income; they are also required to keep records and improve farm management. These are simple practices that help producers, mainly smallholders, to get organized, reduce costs, and better invest their money. Regarding productivity, we strengthened the section on fertilizer use, best practices for its application, and others that will improve plant productivity; for example, by improving the soil, roots, and doing pruning.
Q: What will be left to do once the new standard is published?
De Freitas: The standard will be very complete, but like any living document, it will continue to evolve. Perhaps what we consider to be the best science today will not be so in three to five years; there is always room for improvement.
Q: How does the standard address living wage?
De Freitas: In this standard, we are including the topic of living wage which is focused on covering key aspects such as access to water, housing, education and food. As a certification system, we are advocating for increased attention to the issue and are already working with the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL) to define a common concept of living wage that we would use with five other major certification systems and are defining a way to calculate this so that it applies to everyone. This is the first time that several certification systems have come together to work on this issue and push for improvements together. Now, we need to put the issue on the public agenda, beyond certification systems.
Q: There have been questions raised about the value of certification for producers and for the environment. What does the SAN do to provide that added value for the producers and to stay current in the face of numerous certification systems?
De Freitas: Like any certification system, we must be able to demonstrate the impact of our work, so we are more focused on demonstrating the benefits of certification such as better prices for some certified crops, ecosystem conservation, and improvements in productivity. But we are also implementing improvements such as reduced transaction costs for producers, providing added value during auditor visits, and we want to find ways to encourage certified producers that show excellent performance. All this while maintaining the neutrality and quality that certification requires.
Q: Besides updating the standard and the work being done on living wages, what other projects does the SAN have in the works?
De Freitas: We are working to make the assurance model simpler, more effective and efficient, while maintaining our certification’s quality. We are also improving our information management; we recently launched a database and this year, we will make progress on analyzing data and how our partners use it. Another project is our new learning and support team, which is key for the SAN and it occupies the largest portion of our 2015 budget. We also aim to expand the membership of the network, increasing members in Africa and Asia to expand and strengthen our perspective. We want to position the SAN as the preferred certification system for sustainable agriculture worldwide and be recognized for our high quality, efficiency, and effectiveness.