By Nigel Sizer and Andre de Freitas
The Paris Climate Agreement went into force in late 2016, less than a year after 190 governments signed the landmark, legally binding international treaty.
In November world leaders gathered at the COP22 climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, to tackle the next phase — implementation — beginning with the development of concrete climate action plans.
Agriculture, which accounts for 25-30% of global greenhouse gas emissions (second only to the energy sector), is finally playing a starring role thanks to the Paris treaty’s formal recognition of the critical interplay between agricultural expansion, deforestation and climate change.
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“Today, we must provide the necessary resources to support [climate] adaptation and encourage agriculture because it is one of the solutions to environmental problems,” said Jonathan Pershing, U.S. special envoy for climate change.
Pershing’s statement is a harbinger that the innovative sustainability solutions advanced by Rainforest Alliance (RA) and Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) for 30 years are finding more widespread acceptance in the agricultural sector. The ambitious agricultural agenda of the COP22 is in fact well aligned with our decades of transformative work in agriculture, including the development of an effective and dynamic sustainability standard (the SAN standard), the training of more than 1.4 million farmers in vulnerable landscapes around the world and the building of sustainable commodity supply chains through our certification system. As we are intimately acquainted with the nuts and bolts of this work, we also appreciate the reality check given by Pershing about the resources that will be required to support the world’s 570 million farmers on their journey to long-term sustainability.
One of the biggest and most complex questions is how to scale up sustainable agriculture while addressing challenges specific to various regions and crops. That’s why “continuous improvement” is a fundamental feature of the SAN standard, used to audit RA certified farms. The SAN system is designed to bring farms in and move them up the ladder of sustainability in ways responsive to more localized challenges.
When Platanera Río Sixaola earned RA certification in 1993, it was a milestone in sustainable agriculture (the banana farm remains certified to this day). Today, it is one of more than 1.2 million RA certified farms in 45 countries that grow over 100 crops.
The global climate action Agenda for COP22 called agriculture ‘the greatest opportunity… unrivaled in its potential to simultaneously address poverty, hunger and climate change.’
RA and SAN are working diligently to bring all of these farms in line with the 2017 SAN Standard, which becomes binding in July. An important facet of this mammoth undertaking is a strengthened “continuous improvement” framework that measures performance levels throughout certification cycles. Farms must demonstrate continuous improvement over the years and reach the highest level of performance by the sixth year.
In recognition of several high-priority conservation and human rights goals, the 2017 SAN standard still includes “critical criteria” that all certified farms must follow from the outset. These critical criteria emphasize essential issues that need to be addressed first in the farm’s sustainability journey, strengthening the capacity of farmers to manage their operations, mitigate risks to workers and nearby communities, practice farming methods designed to eliminate deforestation and build climate resilience.
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Climate Smart Agriculture
Climate smart agriculture (CSA) is a system of methods that make farms more productive and resilient in the face of climate change, while reducing their climate impacts. The 2017 SAN standard is the first certification scheme to integrate the principles of climate-smart agriculture into its basic framework. In the 2017 SAN standard, farms are required to conduct ongoing climate risk assessments and formulate action plans to address specific climate threats.
Action plans vary by region but could include planting more diverse crops; planting trees to absorb GHG emissions; better soil management to improve the retention of water, organic fertilizer and carbon; and reducing chemical pesticides. The widespread adoption of CSA, beginning with the over 8.6 million acres already covered by Rainforest Alliance certification, has the potential to significantly mitigate GHG emissions caused by farming. They also can help farms weather climate disruptions that otherwise might put them out of operation.
Climate change, the greatest global crisis in human history, calls upon people at every level of society to fight unprecedented environmental destruction and human suffering. Indeed, we can only address this crisis effectively if we do so together, with every single tool at our disposal, from bold international policy decisions to everyday actions by people around the world.
The 2017 SAN standard provides the kind of dynamic, inclusive and comprehensive accountability framework we’ll need to get there.
Dr. Nigel Sizer was named president of Rainforest Alliance in February 2016. Andre de Freitas is executive director of the Sustainable Agriculture Network.