Commodity agriculture is operating in a context of increasing risks, from the adverse effects of climate change in sourcing regions to the reputational risks of resource-intensive production, including biodiversity loss. Effective risk mitigation requires coordination of multiple actors across value chains. Certification of agricultural products through voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) has been recognized as a way to mitigate environmental and social risks through cooperative market action.
The Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Program (BACP) was initiated in 2007 as a grant facility investing in transformation of international palm oil, soy, and cocoa markets to reduce threats posed by agriculture to biodiversity of global significance. The agricultural landscapes that are meeting global demand for these commodities overlap significantly with biodiversity hotpots. Incentivizing agricultural producers to adopt better management practices (BMPs) can significantly limit biodiversity threats and generate co-benefits for the sustainability of production. Targeting three major groups of market actors – producers, traders and purchasers, and financial institutions – BACP aimed to improve the supply, demand, and financing of biodiversity-friendly agricultural commodities.
In the palm oil sector, BACP grantees demonstrated how strengthening land use planning and managing high conservation value (HCV) areas contributes to preserving biodiversity in production landscapes. Projects piloted tools for HCV assessment and monitoring, fortified commodity roundtable capacities, and increased policymakers’ support for sustainable production.
In the soy sector, BACP grantees field-tested multi-stakeholder and value chain processes to improve how land-use decisions and management practices influence biodiversity. Focusing on Brazil, projects mapped critical biomes, initiated certification of smallholders under the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS), and catalyzed BMP adoption on thousands of hectares.
In the cocoa sector, BACP grantees delivered training and produced tools to build smallholders’ capacity for adopting BMPs and supplying biodiversity-friendly cocoa. Projects also supported creation of a platform for agreeing on standard biodiversity indicators in the cocoa industry.
Managing High Conservation Values: To prevent the expansion of commodity agriculture into existing natural habitat and areas of significant biodiversity, cost-efficient monitoring and assessment tools for HCV are critical. Working with smallholders: Given their large contribution to supplying global commodities, certification of smallholder farmers is central for transforming commodity markets toward more biodiversity-friendly production. Graduated, stepwise compliance supported by simple trainings and incentives has been shown to be effective.
Training and capacity building: For stakeholders to remove policy barriers, reduce information gaps, support better production practices, and increase awareness of biodiversity for sustainable commodities, training and capacity building at multiple scales and across sectors are essential.
Impact assessment: Evaluating the impact of sustainability standards requires an approach that encompasses the variability in farming systems and contexts and provides methodological rigor). The BACP M&E framework assessed both biodiversity and market impacts, and grantees have generated replicable methodologies in palm oil, soy, and cocoa.
Reaching the full potential of voluntary sustainability standards requires targeted interventions and investments that generate robust evidence of impact at multiple scales and that drive market demand while removing barriers to sustainable production. Value chain stakeholders can build on insights from BACP-funded projects in seven major ways:
- Focus on landscape-scale impacts. Voluntary sustainability standards are, at present, focused on farm-scale BMPs rather than landscape-scale changes that are central to biodiversity conservation (e.g., habitat fragmentation). Key actions include adapting existing tools to assess impacts at multiple scales in commodity landscapes and building mechanisms for coordination among landscape decision makers.
- Increase capacity of commodity roundtables and multi-sector platforms. Multi-stakeholder partnerships represent an important model for forging agreement among market and civil society actors (eg, defining BMPs). Key actions include uptake of robust methodologies and indicators by standard-setting bodies for linking biodiversity and social impact with market transformation, strengthening partnership models across sectors, and expanding support for commodity roundtable technical working groups.
- Continuously improve processes for setting and monitoring standards. The great variety among producers, landscapes, and value chains challenges uniform application of certification standards and M&E frameworks, yet these are essential for credibility and increasing demand for certified products. Key actions include shifting standards toward compulsory requirements, harmonizing M&E across standard-setting bodies, and cross-commodity and cross-region investments to achieve more systematic impact assessment.
- Pursue supportive government policies. Policy and legal barriers stymie BMP adoption. Key actions include mobilizing policy makers to reduce perverse incentives, maintaining open communication between international and national standard-setting bodies, and building capacity within regional and national governments for spatial planning, rural advisory services, and regulations.
- Recognize the central role of smallholders. For certification systems to expand beyond higher-performing producers, capacity building and financing models are needed to enable smallholders to adopt BMPs. Key actions include expanding programs delivered by roundtables and governments and documenting the full suite of incentives relevant to smallholders in specific commodity landscapes (e.g. price, preferred access, tenure).
- Build market demand across value chains. Market transformation relies on credibility of standards through proven impacts on sustainability, including biodiversity conservation. Key actions include improving communication about VSS impacts to consumers and mainstreaming effective HCV monitoring tools into normal business operations.
- Adopt new financial models. To cover costs associated with BMP adoption, many types of producers will need access to new financial arrangements. Key actions include developing the investment case for financial institutions (i.e. to innovate new products or to incorporate sustainability concerns in their lending programs), testing which value chain actors have incentives and capacities to deliver needed financial services, and refining full-cost estimation of certification.
Increasing awareness, support, and adoption of biodiversity-friendly BMPs across agricultural commodity value chains represents an important mechanism for conserving biodiversity globally. By focusing on biodiversity as an essential dimension of sustainability, agricultural value chain actors can more comprehensively account for and manage the complex and interconnected challenges they face.