Agroforestry Certification

In my last post I discussed some of the needs and challenges of ‘branding’ agroforestry production. I concluded by indicating the best branding solution is probably to link the brand to a certification scheme. In this post I want to elaborate on that idea and share some of the opportunities and pitfalls of agroforestry certification.

First it’s important to understand that certification is simply a marketing tool. Certification allows producers/harvesters to differentiate their products or services by informing consumers about the product or the process by which it was grown or harvested (e. g. that it is safe, sustainable and of high quality). Ideally it should also establish that the associated product/production standards have been independently verified.

In some instances this differentiation will attract a socially-conscience customer base that is willing to pay a premium for products that embody their values. In other circumstances, certification may be required in order to access markets, and thus sets the baseline expectations of the marketplace.

An unavoidable truth of certification is that it needs a supporting organization to administer the program and to independently verify standards are being met. Secondly, the costs associated with the certification bureaucracy increase the cost of production and need to be borne by someone in the system. As a producer you have to eat those extra costs or pass them on to your customers.

Unless certification is a baseline expectation of their clientele, many producers/harvesters may not see any direct benefit to the added paperwork and costs involved. Indeed, if your market is exclusively direct to the consumer, then you can convey your environmental and social benefits directly to the person who buys your wares. And through building personal relationships and trust with your buyers, you preclude the need for third-party verification. Certification makes more sense however, if you want to access larger or more distant markets.

Being uncertified does not make an operation unsustainable per se. It does mean though, that you don’t have an independent way to prove standards. Third-party certification becomes more important when your product moves through a complex supply chain or markets independent of your personal reputation or ‘brand’. The globalized nature of today’s agricultural and forestry markets means a certification scheme will give you the potential to access to bigger sales opportunities and may ease access into new markets. Particularly for new and emerging operations, the ability to build up production to access a larger market over time is a strong rationale for adopting some sort of certification early on.

This link to international markets also means there is a need for global standards. This has been the experience of Certified Organic production. As Organics have become more globalized, the emphasis has shifted from certifying bodies focused at the regional level, to the national and international level to facilitate import and export dynamics. The emergence of an international coordinating body is likely a necessity, but as with the Organic movement, it can evolve out of development from the grassroots.

So while the logistics of setting up a certification scheme for agroforestry production has many examples to work from, the pitfalls of this approach may make it a slow grind forward.

The first issue revolves around the breadth and complexity of agroforestry management practices. Some timber and non-timber forest products are already certified through groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and other programs. According to the Washington Post, about 15% of the bananas, 10% of forestry products and 7% of the coffee (including shade-grown, agroforestry production) globally comes from certified production. But a lack of information about individual species, including a baseline understanding of interactions and sustainable harvesting levels, restricts the range of what can be certified with any legitimacy.

Market expectations also need to be set. Good agricultural and collection practices are already being adopted in various national and sub-national jurisdictions to set the minimum quality and safety standards for food and natural medicines, but buyer’s standards for the wide diversity of potential production has generally not been codified. There needs to be structured engagement between wholesale and retail buyers with agroforestry producers and harvesters to start setting acceptable standards for quality and expectations of the uniformity and other characteristics. Some of this work can be borrowed from other certification programs (e.g. timber components, agricultural products grown in an agroforestry setting), but many agroforestry outputs are unique (i.e. many NTFPs and native species) and not in the mainstream of our diversity-deprived, commodity-driven, agri-food complex).

The costs associated with certification also need to be reasonable. Existing certification schemes can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars to establish and thousands more per year to maintain and pay for auditing. This cost burden, for which it may not initially be possible to pass along to the consumer, would be a barrier for small-scale agroforestry operations to become certified. Certification programs must therefore balance the time and costs involved in the process against potential market gains for the majority of the producer stakeholders.

And consumer skepticism may also unravel new certification schemes. Having a clear and concise marketing message and promotional materials tied to certification and a common agroforestry marketing label should help bring on and retain new customers. But some backlash is starting to develop over branding and certification. As recently reported in the Washington Post ‘green’ certification has become an increasingly crowded and sometimes disreputable field. The article cites a survey of more than 2,200 certified North American products in 2008 and 2009 that found that more than 98% lacked proof to justify their claims. Green-washing and unverified claims creates general distrust for all certified product and an unwillingness to pay a premium over the mass produced alternatives. This would be particularly true of a new brand unrecognized by the consumer. To counteract this skepticism would require a concerted marketing effort and resources that may not initially be available to a small program ‘trying to find its feet.’

But, although agroforestry certification may not be easy, but the way forward in the undifferentiated commodity markets is even less appealing for all but the mega-producers.