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Can Sustainability Standards Help Protect the World’s Biodiversity?

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By Vivek Voora, May 22, 2018

Agriculture is responsible for 70 per cent of projected losses in terrestrial biodiversity due to land conversion, pollution and soil degradation.

However, voluntary sustainability standards provide an opportunity to reduce agriculture’s impact on biodiversity and promote best practices. This can result in improved yields, in turn helping to feed the world’s growing population. Agricultural production that is compliant with these voluntary sustainability standards has grown an average of 35 per cent each year between 2008 and 2014.

In celebration of World Biodiversity Day, we interviewed Vivek Voora, an associate with IISD working on the State of Sustainability Initiatives, to get his thoughts on how standards can impact biodiversity.

What does biodiversity mean? 

Biodiversity refers to all living matter on earth. This can range from the smallest unicellular entities, like bacteria, to the largest pluricellular beings, like the blue whale. These species can have varying lifespans, from mere days to thousands of years, and biodiversity works in concert to enable life on earth.

What role do standards play in protecting biodiversity?

One of the greatest threats we’ve seen to biodiversity has been the loss of natural habitats, driven in large part by the expansion of agricultural lands.

Voluntary sustainability standards leverage market demands to incentivize more sustainable production methods. This provides consumers of standard-compliant products with some level of assurance their purchases are more sustainable.

For example, a number of agricultural standards have adopted zero-deforestation criteria to curb the expansion of agricultural lands into natural environments and help protect biodiversity. That means a consumer of a product that complies with this standard can be assured that no forest areas were cleared or converted in the production process.

IISD launched a report called “Standards and Biodiversity” in 2017. What impact or change was this report hoping to achieve?

The Standards and Biodiversity report examined how agricultural sustainability standards align with the biodiversity indicators for commodity production developed by the Convention of Biological Diversity partners. It looked at where standards are operating and how they are performing in the marketplace. In writing this report, we not only underwent this thorough examination, but we also provided recommendations on how to further protect biodiversity.

What were the main findings of the report? 

A key finding is how standard-compliant production is growing a lot faster than conventional production. But standard-compliant production still operates on a small fraction of the overall land allocated to agriculture worldwide.

Also, although these standards have been created to adequately address habitat loss, they need to be designed to also address emerging drivers of biodiversity loss. These include climate change and invasive species, for example.

In the past, standards have typically been practice-based as opposed to performance-based. This means standards focused on the practice farmers use, as opposed to the actual field-level impacts the practices have. Because of this, there is an abundant amount of information on the practices that standard-compliant farmers are adopting, but not on the actual sustainability impacts they are having.

One of the greatest threats we’ve seen to biodiversity has been the loss of natural habitats, driven in large part by the expansion of agricultural lands.

Essentially, although some standards operate in parts of the world where the potential for biodiversity protection is high, the lack of actual spatial information on the farms where they work prevents a better understanding of how they affect biodiversity protection.

In what other ways can standards contribute to sustainable development?

One of the most important contributions of standards to sustainable development is that they create partnerships and governance systems across the globe to enable sustainable production and consumption in various commodity sectors.