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Study Says Cotton Certification Growing but Still Marginal

A new study from the International Institute for Sustainable Development shows that voluntary environmental standards are growing across select agricultural sectors, but remain a marginal force across global production.

Cotton certification appears to be under-represented in countries where cotton-related water use is most problematic, said the study from IISD, which provides practical solutions to the growing challenges and opportunities of integrating environmental and social priorities with economic development.

Cotton requires significant amounts of water for commercial production and has historically been a driver of water scarcity in several major producing regions. Water use efficiency is therefore an essential component of sustainable cotton production, it noted.

Water use requirements across cotton standards emphasize water recycling and efficient irrigation practices, with the Better Cotton Initiative, the dominant cotton standard, reporting critical requirements across all water use indicators. By 2014, 1.9 million metric tons, or 7 percent of global cotton lint production, was standard compliant, up from 163,000 tons, or 1 percent, in 2008. BCI alone aims to have 30 percent of the world’s cotton production verified under the program by 2020.

Although African and Asian countries have been experiencing growth in certified production, Brazil dominates the market, accounting for 41 percent of all certified cotton in 2014, the study pointed out.

“Expansion of certified cotton across Pakistan and India offer significant opportunities and should be considered of strategic importance from a cotton water management perspective,” the Institute said.

[Read more about cotton sustainability efforts: Cotton Groups Tout Fiber’s Ability to Battle Polyester]

Between 2015 and 2016, the Institute and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity convened a multi-stakeholder group of experts to identify a core set of biodiversity indicators that might be measured by member countries as a basis for understanding the state of biodiversity risk posed by agricultural production, leading to the creation of Biodiversity Impact Indicators for Commodity Production.

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Voluntary sustainability standards are increasingly being adopted in a variety of sectors as a basis for promoting sustainable agriculture at production. This review attempts to understand the degree to which major VSSs operating in the agriculture sector are aligned with the specific biodiversity-related objectives targeted by the BIICP.

The growth of standard-compliant production continues to outpace growth for conventional products in the eight sectors where standards are most active. Standard-compliant production is on track to reach 10 percent or more of global production across each of these sectors by 2020.

The total area covered by standards in the eight sectors–banana, cotton, coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar, palm oil and soybean–where standards are most active reached 14.5 million hectares in 2014, accounting for less than 1 percent of global agricultural area. Similarly, the study estimates that 100 percent certification of these eight agricultural commodities would amount to a mere 12 percent of global agricultural land area.

“If voluntary standards are to play a major role in reducing the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity loss, they will have to, at a minimum, establish a significant presence among other crops, most notably staple crops such as wheat, maize and rice,” the study noted. “Requirements under existing standards prescribe practices rather than performance outcomes, leaving a vacuum of data and evidence with respect to actual impacts.”

The Institute said based on its review, “It is clear that the major agricultural standards contain significant requirements related to biodiversity conservation. It is also clear, however, that the implementation of standards, being driven by market forces, is, at best, only partially aligned with biodiversity protection. Policy-makers have a role to play in leveraging the momentum and infrastructure behind voluntary standards to promote a more intentional, strategic and, ultimately, effective implementation of voluntary standards for biodiversity conservation.”

Key policy options include supporting biodiversity-driven implementation, offering leadership in the development of integrated data systems, supporting voluntary sustainability standards in the development of effective requirements and impact research and analysis, and implement a policy framework for credibility assurance.

“The current and ongoing focus of voluntary standards on practice-based requirements through farm-specific interventions potentially limits their ability in bringing about broader landscape or regional changes,” the study concluded. “Meanwhile, the relative absence of performance-oriented outcomes or requirements related to the measurement of such outcomes represents an important opportunity for policy-makers and standards systems to work together in defining relevant indicators that can support the implementation of policy objectives.”