Sustainability standards’ impact on food security: what’s the evidence?


Voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) are now an important mode of governance in agricultural commodity chains. According to the Standards Map of the International Trade Centre, there are 150 VSS active in the agrifood sector, with many of these programs focused on the certification of tropical commodities and their production in developing countries. In the coffee sector, current estimates of the global certified production area range between 26% to 45%. This is followed by cocoa (23%–38%), tea (13%–18%), oil palm (12%), cotton (10%–11%), and bananas (5%–9%).[1] These figures show that VSS are no longer a niche phenomenon, but have reached the mainstream. As the market share of these programs continues to grow, researchers and practitioners alike are turning their attention to their socio-economic and environmental impacts on the ground.

In a recent article published in Global Food Security, we tackle an important blind spot in current discussions about VSS and their impacts: the issue of food security. While food security may not (yet) be a priority for most certification programs, this gap is nonetheless surprising given that  many VSS have aligned their work with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including the goal to end hunger worldwide by 2030 (SDG 2). Indeed, the issue of food security is a pressing one. Global statistics show that more than 820 million people are undernourished, and the situation is worsening in most regions of the Global South. Against this background, and given the mainstreaming of VSS in agricultural supply chains, it is of utmost importance to understand how these programs can affect local food security – positively as well as negatively. In our article, we advance our collective understanding of the issue in two principal ways. First, on a conceptual level, we identify the main causal mechanisms through which certification programs can unfold an effect. Second, on an empirical level, we systematically review the existing evidence base on these relationships.

Our study identifies three main causal mechanisms that link sustainability certification to food security in commodity producing countries. These are economic effects, land use and land rights effects, and gender effects. Using this framework to guide our systematic review of 67 studies, we find that the vast majority of them focus on certification’s economic effects, leaving the other two mechanisms empirically little explored. More specifically, the extant research literature suggests a positive relationship between sustainability certification, farmers’ incomes, and their food purchasing power; yet, this relationship remains weak and varies significantly across schemes, sectors, type of producers, as well as market environments. With respect to certification’s land use, land rights, and gender effects, the empirical evidence base is very limited and remains inconclusive. In addition, our review shows that studies on VSS and food security often fail to specify how sustainability certification affects the four dimensions of the concept – that is, food availability, food access, food utilization, and food stability.

Overall, we find confirmation for our prior intuition that food security remains a blind spot in the literature on sustainability certification and its impacts. Given the urgency of the issue, we call for more targeted research on this important subject. To make progress, researchers should collaborate across disciplinary boundaries and leverage the power of multi-method research designs to investigate the mechanisms identified in our article. Importantly, this research should focus more strongly on the non-economic effects of certification and more precision is needed when it comes to the different dimensions of food security. Furthermore, from a policy perspective, there should be more critical reflection about the role of sustainability certification in global and local food governance. Our review shows that VSS can have important direct and indirect effects on food security, both positive and negative. As researchers and practitioners become aware of these relationships, more needs to be done to recognize the risks and opportunities for food security and wider sustainable development agenda.


[1] Lernoud, J., J. Potts, G. Sampson, B. Schlatter, G. Huppe, V. Voora, H. Willer, J. Wozniak and D. Dang. (2018). The State of Sustainable Markets: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2018, International Trade Centre, Geneva.

Schleifer, P.
Assistant Professor in Transnational Governance, Political Science Department, University of Amsterdam (UvA)
Sun, Y.
Assistant Professor in International Development, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath

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