Imagine an international mega-deal. The global organic food industry agrees to support international agribusiness in clearing as much tropical rainforest as they want for farming. In return, agribusiness agrees to farm the now-deforested land using organic methods, and the organic industry encourages its supporters to buy the resulting timber and food under the newly devised "Rainforest Plus" label. There would surely be an international outcry.
Virtually unnoticed, however, even by their own membership, the world's biggest wildlife conservation groups have agreed exactly to such a scenario, only in reverse. Led by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), many of the biggest conservation nonprofits including Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy have already agreed to a series of global bargains with international agribusiness. In exchange for vague promises of habitat protection, sustainability and social justice, these conservation groups are offering to greenwash industrial commodity agriculture.
The big conservation nonprofits don't see it that way of course. According to WWF 'Vice President for Market Transformation' Jason Clay, the new conservation strategy arose from two fundamental realizations.
The first was that agriculture and food production are the key drivers of almost every environmental concern. From issues as diverse as habitat destruction to over-use of water, from climate change to ocean dead zones, agriculture and food production are globally the primary culprits. To take one example, 80-90% of all fresh water abstracted by humans is for agriculture (e.g. FAO's State of the World's Land and Water report ).
This point was emphasized once again in a recent analysis published in the scientific journal Nature. The lead author of this study was Professor Jonathan Foley (Foley et al 2011). Not only is Foley the director of the University of Minnesota-based Institute on the Environment, but he is also a science board member of the Nature Conservancy.
The second crucial realization for WWF was that forest destroyers typically are not peasants with machetes but national and international agribusinesses with bulldozers. It is the latter who deforest tens of thousands of acres at a time. Land clearance on this scale is an ecological disaster, but Claire Robinson of Earth Open Source points out it is also "incredibly socially destructive", as peasants are driven off their land and communities are destroyed. According to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 60 million people worldwide risk losing their land and means of subsistence from palm plantations.
By about 2004, WWF had come to appreciate the true impacts of industrial agriculture. Instead of informing their membership and initiating protests and boycotts, however, they embarked on a partnership strategy they call 'market transformation'.
With WWF leading the way, the conservation nonprofits have negotiated approval schemes for "Responsible" and "Sustainable" farmed commodity crops. According to Clay, the plan is to have agribusinesses sign up to reduce the 4-6 most serious negative impacts of each commodity crop by 70-80%. And if enough growers and suppliers sign up, then the Indonesian rainforests or the Brazilian Cerrado will be saved.
The ambition of market transformation is on a grand scale. There are schemes for palm oil (the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil; RSPO), soybeans (the Round Table on Responsible Soy; RTRS), biofuels (the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels), Sugar (Bonsucro) and also for cotton, shrimp, cocoa and farmed salmon. These are markets each worth many billions of dollars annually and the intention is for these new "Responsible" and Sustainable" certified products to dominate them.
The reward for producers and supermarkets will be that, reinforced on every shopping trip, "Responsible" and "Sustainable" logos and marketing can be expected to have major effects on public perception of the global food supply chain. And the ultimate goal is that, if these schemes are successful, human rights, critical habitats, and global sustainability will receive a huge and globally significant boost.
The role of WWF and other nonprofits in these schemes is to offer their knowledge to negotiate standards, to provide credibility, and to lubricate entry of certified products into international markets. On its UK website, for example, WWF offers its members the chance to "Save the Cerrado" by emailing supermarkets to buy "Responsible Soy". What WWF argues will be a major leap forward in environmental and social responsibility has already started. "Sustainable" and "Responsible" products are already entering global supply chains.
For conservation nonprofits these plans entail risk, one of which is simple guilt by association. The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) scheme is typical of these certification schemes. Its membership includes WWF, Conservation International, Fauna and Flora International, the Nature Conservancy, and other prominent nonprofits. Corporate members include repeatedly vilified members of the industrial food chain. As of January 2012, there are 102 members, including Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, Nestle, BP and UK supermarket ASDA.
That is not the only risk. Membership in the scheme, which includes signatures on press-releases and sometimes on labels, indicates approval for activities that are widely opposed. The RTRS, for example, certifies soybeans grown in large-scale chemical-intensive monocultures. They are usually GMOs. They are mostly fed to animals. And they originate from countries with hungry populations. When 52% of Americans think GMOs are unsafe and 93% think GMOs ought to be labeled, for example, this is a risk most organizations dependent on their reputations probably would not consider.
The remedy for such reputational risk is high standards, rigorous certification and watertight traceability procedures. Only credibility at every step can deflect the seemingly obvious suspicion that the conservation nonprofits have been hoodwinked or have somehow 'sold out'.
So, which one is it? Are "Responsible" and "Sustainable" certifications indicative of a genuine strategic success by WWF and its fellows, or are the schemes nothing more than business as usual with industrial scale greenwashing and a social justice varnish?
Low and Ambiguous Standards
The first place to look is the standards themselves. RTRS standards (version 1, June 2010), to continue with the example of soybeans, cover five 'principles'. Principle 1 is: Legal Compliance and Good Business Practices. Principle 2 is: Responsible Labour Conditions. Principle 3 is: Responsible Community Relations. Principle 4 is Environmental Responsibility. Principle 5 is Good Agricultural Practice.
Language typical of the standards includes, under Principle 2, Responsible Labour Conditions, section 2.1.1 "No forced, compulsory, bonded, trafficked. or otherwise involuntary labor is used at any stage of production", while section 2.4.4 states "Workers are not hindered from interacting with external parties outside working hours."
Under Principle 3: Responsible Community Relations, section 3.3.3 states: "Any complaints and grievances received are dealt with in a timely manner."
Under Principle 4: Environmental Responsibility, section 4.2 states "Pollution is minimized and production waste is managed responsibly" and section 4.4 states "Expansion of soy cultivation is responsible".
Under Principle 5: Good Agricultural Practice, Section 5.9 states "Appropriate measures are implemented to prevent the drift of agrochemicals to neighboring areas."
These samples illustrate the tone of the RTRS principles and guidance.
There are two ways to read these standards. The generous interpretation is to recognize that the sentiments expressed are higher than what are actually practiced in many countries where soybeans are grown, in that the standards broadly follow common practice in Europe or North America. Nevertheless, they are far lower than organic or fairtrade standards; for example they don't require crop rotation, or prohibit pesticides. Even a generous reading also needs to acknowledge the crucial point that adherence to similar requirements in Europe and North America has contaminated wells, depleted aquifers, degraded rivers, eroded the soil, polluted the oceans, driven species to extinction and depopulated the countryside—to mention only a few well-documented downsides.
There is also a less generous interpretation of the standards. Much of the content is either in the form of statements, or it is merely advice. Thus section 4.2 reads "Pollution is minimized and production waste is managed responsibly." Imperatives, such as: must, may never, will, etc., are mostly lacking from the document. Worse, key terms such as "pollution", "minimized", "responsible" and "timely" (see above) are left undefined. This chronic vagueness means that both certifiers and producers possess effectively infinite latitude to implement or judge the standards. They could never be enforced, in or out of court.
Dubious Verification and Enforcement
Unfortunately, the flaws of RTRS certification do not end there. They include the use of an internal verification system. The RTRS uses professional certifiers, but only those who are members of RTRS. This means that the conservation nonprofits are relying on third parties for compliance information. It also means that only RTRS members can judge whether a principle was adhered to. Even if they consider it was not, there is nothing they can do, since the RTRS has no legal status or sanctions.
The 'culture' of deforestation is also important to the standards. Rainforest clearance is often questionably legal, or actively illegal, and usually requires removing existing occupants from the land. It is a world of private armies and bribery. This operating environment makes very relevant the irony under which RTRS members, under Principle 1, volunteer to obey the law. The concept of volunteering to obey the law begs more than a few questions. If an organization is not already obeying the law, what makes WWF suppose that a voluntary code of conduct will persuade it? And does obeying the law meaningfully contribute to a marketing campaign based on responsibility?
Of equal concern is the absence of a clear certification trail. Under the "Mass Balance" system offered by RTRS, soybeans (or derived products) can be sold as "Responsible" that were never grown under the system. Mass Balance means vendors can transfer the certification quantity purchased, to non-RTRS soybeans. Such an opportunity raises the inherent difficulties of traceability and verification to new levels.
How Will Certification Save Wild Habitats?
A key stated goal of WWF is to halt deforestation through the use of maps identifying priority habitat areas that are off-limits to RTRS members. There are crucial questions over these maps, however. Firstly, even though soybeans are already being traded they have yet to be drawn up. Secondly, the maps are to be drawn up by RTRS members themselves. Thirdly, RTRS maps can be periodically redrawn. Fourthly, RTRS members need not certify all of their production acreage. This means they can certify part of their acreage as "Responsible", but still sell (as "Irresponsible"?) soybeans from formerly virgin habitat. This means WWF's target for year 2020 of 25% coverage globally and 75% in WWF's 'priority areas' would still allow 25% of the Brazilian soybean harvest to come from newly deforested land. And of course, the scheme cannot prevent non-members, or even non-certified subsidiaries, from specializing in deforestation (1).
These are certification schemes, therefore, with low standards, no methods of enforcement, and enormous loopholes (2). Pete Riley of UK GM Freeze dubs their instigator the "World Wide Fund for naiveté" and believes "the chances of Responsible soy saving the Cerrado are zero." (3). Claire Robinson agrees: "The RTRS standard will not protect the forests and other sensitive ecosystems. Additionally, it greenwashes soy that's genetically modified to survive being sprayed with quantities of herbicide that endanger human health and the environment." There is even a website (www.toxicsoy.org) dedicated to exposing the greenwashing of GMO Soy.