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07 June 2021

Sustainable Agriculture’s Promise and Perils

Associate Professor Shaila Seshia Galvin examines the role of sustainable agriculture in the UN Decade on ecosystem restoration, launched on 5 June 2021, World Environment Day. 

World Environment Day 2021 marks the launch of the UN Decade on ecosystem restoration, with its injunction to “reimagine, recreate, restore.” Sustainable agriculture is an important element of this agenda, as new bridges between domains of agriculture and environment are built around these principles.

Although sustainable agricultural practices trace long and diverse histories, a novel feature of increasingly mainstreamed contemporary sustainability programmes is the emphasis on standards and certification. These have grown rapidly in the last 10 years, and as the International Trade Centre’s Sustainability Map shows, there are now well over 200 sustainability standards for food and agricultural commodities alone.

When it comes to smallholder producers in the Global South, the promise of sustainable agriculture lies in the way it appears to hold out the possibility of realising both social or ecological benefits as well as income generation opportunities for small producers. An example of this is a recent benchmarking exercise, undertaken by the UN Forum on Sustainability Standards, which maps connections between sustainability standards and several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

But despite the potential benefits that sustainable agriculture is supposed to hold for smallholders, sustainability standards and certification must contend with a range of challenges and issues in order for this promise to be more fully realised.

For a start, research has shown that smallholder producers are often excluded entirely, or only indirectly included, in the development and governance of standards and certification processes, even though their images and stories are often prominently used in marketing campaigns that generate brand value.

My own research in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, among smallholder farmers who participated in a programme to develop commercial organic agriculture, revealed some of the critical, everyday challenges that producers face.

Their socioeconomic position, as well as the agroecological conditions and wider agrarian economy in which they are located, exerted a strong and differential influence on their ability to participate in, and benefit from, commercial, certified, organic agriculture.

Participation in organic standard and certification regimes was more feasible for well-resourced producers of higher social status, but came with substantial demands even for this relatively prosperous smallholding group. For example, In Uttarakhand’s Doon Valley, the production of organic basmati rice for export through a contract with a major rice retailer meant that farmers were required to adhere not only to organic standards but to stringent quality standards regulating the varieties that could be grown and the physical characteristics of the grain.

In seeking to “reimagine, recreate and restore” agroecological systems in ways that bring benefits and opportunities for smallholder producers, it is therefore important to develop an attunement to the range of experiences that differently-positioned smallholders have with sustainability standards and certification.

This involves recognising the ways in which these initiatives have important local ramifications not only for agricultural practices but for agrarian relations, governance, and institutions. It also requires focused attention on the tensions that arise when smallholder systems whose resilience is achieved importantly through their diversity and variability must contend with commercially oriented sustainability standards and certification programmes requiring farmers to produce standardised commodities in high volumes.

For sustainable agriculture to heed the call to “reimagine, recreate, restore,” these challenges indeed call for considerable re-imagination and re-creation—perhaps, most of all, of standardisation processes and practices themselves.