An agenda for assessing and improving conservation impacts of sustainability standards in tropical agriculture

Lead author: Jeffrey Milder       Year: 2014       Methodology: Evaluation study

ISO R&I Team Summary

This paper looks at the state of research on the the benefits of sustainability standards for agriculture and conservation. In a context where sustainability standards are gaining importance, the authors identify a lack of empirical studies and robust evidence regarding the conservation impacts of those standards. Limitations in existing research are summarised and include methodology robustness, a focus on isolated case studies, the impossibility to undertake comparative analysis due to a variety of methods and the short timeframe of studies. The authors thus develop a 3-level hierarchical framework to address these limitations and offer recommendations for generating a more robust evidence base (1.system wide monitoring, 2. sampled monitoring, 3. focused research). These include new initiatives such as developing common indicators, data collection guidelines, data sharing platforms, or establishing a research network. They conclude that it is necessary to invest and prioritise empirical research on the role of sustainability standards to increase sustainable agriculture and that their framework can support this process by coordinating a range of existing monitoring and research activities as well as develop targeted new initiatives.


Publication Abstract

Sustainability standards and certification serve to differentiate and provide market recognition to goods produced in accordance with social and environmental good practices, typically including practices to protect biodiversity. Such standards have seen rapid growth, including in tropical agricultural commodities such as cocoa, coffee, palm oil, soybeans, and tea. Given the role of sustainability standards in influencing land use in hotspots of biodiversity, deforestation, and agricultural intensification, much could be gained from efforts to evaluate and increase the conservation payoff of these schemes. To this end, we devised a systematic approach for monitoring and evaluating the conservation impacts of agricultural sustainability standards and for using the resulting evidence to improve the effectiveness of such standards over time. The approach is oriented around a set of hypotheses and corresponding research questions about how sustainability standards are predicted to deliver conservation benefits. These questions are addressed through data from multiple sources, including basic common information from certification audits; field monitoring of environmental outcomes at a sample of certified sites; and rigorous impact assessment research based on experimental or quasi-experimental methods. Integration of these sources can generate time-series data that are comparable across sites and regions and provide detailed portraits of the effects of sustainability standards. To implement this approach, we propose new collaborations between the conservation research community and the sustainability standards community to develop common indicators and monitoring protocols, foster data sharing and synthesis, and link research and practice more effectively. As the role of sustainability standards in tropical land-use governance continues to evolve, robust evidence on the factors contributing to effectiveness can help to ensure that such standards are designed and implemented to maximize benefits for biodiversity conservation.


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  • Publication type:

    • Journal article
  • Other authors:

    • Jeffrey Milder
    • Margaret Arbuthnot
    • Allen Blackman
    • Sharon Brooks
    • Daniele Giovannucci
    • Lee Gross
    • Elizabeth Kennedy
    • Kristin Nomives
    • Eric Lambin
    • Audrey Lee
    • Daniel Meyer
    • Peter Newton
    • Ben Phalan
    • Gotz Schroth
    • Bambi Semroc
    • Henk van Rikxoort
    • Michal Zrust