Consumer’s Guide to Ethical Food Certifications
It’s the third Sunday of the month: your turn to cook dinner – that’s fine because you’re not in charge of washing the dishes. As you meander through the store aisles, you remember that your flatmates are picky; John only eats “ethical” meat and Michael, organic produce. Fortunately there are certified products galore in the store, so now the only issue remaining is deciding which ones to purchase.
In this time of green consumerism, choosing between certain standards and labels really can be confusing. There are so many issues to consider: your health, the environment, workers’ rights and even animal rights. If you are someone who is interested in conserving biodiversity, hopefully this can shed some light on the labels that we see in Tesco Morrisons or Sainsburys, more specifically, the Rainforest Alliance, the Marine Stewardship Council, the Soil Association, Certified Humane and the Fairtrade Foundation.
The Rainforest Alliance – http://www.rainforest-alliance.org
The Rainforest Alliance works to prevent deforestation and land degradation and to increase conservation around the world by training and educating land managers and entrepreneurs who produce food products such as bananas and tea. They also work with communities to conserve local biodiversity by establishing sustainable eco-tourism businesses (Rainforest Alliance 2014). In order to be certified, producers’ practices must meet certain criteria, some of which are “conserving local wildlife and water resources, minimizing soil erosion” and “protecting forests and reforesting where possible” (McAllister 2004). Rainforest Alliance Certified farms must follow the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standards, which can be found at the bottom of this paragraph. Some of the criteria call for providing a natural habitat for endangered species, letting land lie fallow to improve soil health and planting vegetation barriers to minimize the impact of agrochemicals. It is important to note that only 80% of the total criteria must be met for certification and that some certified products might have been produced using pesticides (Standard Agriculture Network 2010). Further, it allows products that have at least 30% of its ingredients Rainforest Alliance Certified to bear its seal, which has caused many consumers to criticize the organization and call for an increase the percentage of certified content (Rainforest Alliance 2014). The SAN standards can be found here: http://www.sanstandards.org/userfiles/SAN-S-1-1_2%20Sustainable%20Agriculture%20Standard_docx(1).pdf
The MSC encourages sustainable fishing practices to preserve marine life by proposing standards for fisheries to follow if they wish to be certified. Part of the standards require sustainable management of stock populations and that the fishery operations have as little impact as possible on the local environment. This can be done through effective waste management and by ensuring that none of the farmed species escape into the wild. This way, the species diversity and structures of nearby natural ecosystems are preserved. Additionally, the MSC prides itself on its products’ traceability, that is, the chain of custody that can allow consumers to see where their seafood came from and how it ended up on the store shelf. The MSC also encourages fishers to be more aware of bycatch and the effects of their fishing on non-target species. Sometimes, turtles or even dolphins are captured as bycatch when fishers lay out long fishing lines with many hooks, and these hooks can end in places such as albatross nests (Agnew et al 2006). Despite its good intentions, MSC has, at times, been found to act in ways that contradict its principles. In early 2013 National Public Radio published an article detailing that some seafood may be certified by the MSC, despite a lack of accord with MSC certification standards (Zwerdling and Williams 2013). Later in the year, a Nature article included scientist Jenifer Jacquet’s observation that the MSC’s scoring system is subjective and can be understood in ways that would easily allow fisheries to be granted the MSC seal of approval (Cressey 2013).
Soil Association – http://www.soilassociation.org
The Soil Association is a British charity that campaigns for organic production of food, clothes and make-up. Unlike some of the other certification schemes, the Soil Association’s standards and requirements are more concrete and easier to locate. By producing goods organically, the Soil Association believes that the Earth’s health improves, as well as humans’ wellbeing. In order to conserve biodiversity, the Soil Association urges farmers to create wildlife corridors to link habitats by establishing hedgerows or field margins, and it prohibits genetically modified (GM) crops. Further, it maintains that any green waste must be checked for GM contamination. Green waste, along with crop rotations, is encouraged as it promotes nutrient recycling and improves soil health. For aquaculture operations, the Soil Association requires detailed management plans that include an analysis about the fishery’s impact on the local environment and how it will be implemented. Even though the Soil Association produces its goods organically, keep in mind that 5% of ingredients are allowed to be non-organic, probably because they are hard to grow organically (Soil Association 2013). Though some products are not grown organically, that does not necessarily mean that they were grown using pesticides. To further its mission of conserving biodiversity and improving environmental quality the Soil Association has introduced new projects, such as the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme and Low Carbon Farming, to help farmers improve their productivity in an environmentally responsible manner. For more information on the Soil Association’s organic standards, browse through them here: http://soilassociation.org/organicstandards.
Certified Humane –http://www.certifiedhumane.org
For people who shop for meat that has been raised ethically, Certified Humane can be their answer. Certified Humane concerns itself with animal welfare; certified farms provide plenty of space in which animals can move, unlike industrial farms where cows, pigs and chickens are crammed tightly into pens. If an animal product is labeled as Certified Humane, farmers have not used antibiotics and have allowed the animals to have access to space, food and water. Some animal activists might take issue with the fact that Certified Humane standards permit beak trimming, but in some cases it is done to prevent hens from violently pecking one another (Certified Humane 2013). Animals products labeled as Certified Humane were not necessarily were raised according to organic standards (Certified Humane 2013). Certified Humane focuses on ethical treatment of animals, while organic programs emphasize environmental health. It is also possible that some meats were raised ethically and/ or organically, but the producers could not afford to be certified. If you want to know more about how your meat is raised, it’s best to do research on the farm on that it came from or you can ask farmers if you buy meat directly from them at local farmers’ markets. Here are the label’s standards: http://www.certifiedhumane.org/index.php?page=standards.
In a fashion similar to Certified Humane’s, the Fairtrade Foundation chooses not to focus on the environment but rather on farmers and workers in developing countries. It aims to tackle poverty by empowering producers and giving them the opportunity to be more actively involved in the global market. It still, however, has some rules for producers regarding the environment. It prohibits the use of GM crops, but it does not check for them (Fairtrade Foundation 2008). Buffer zones are required around bodies of water to reduce the risk of chemical contamination from pesticides, and farmers must report how they measure soil quality. The Fairtrade Foundation encourages farmers to be aware of local wildlife so that they do not hunt or collect threatened species or introduce invasive species to the area. Though it has taken some measures to protect the environment, the Fairtrade Foundation can do more. For example, with a stricter GM crop policy, local systems can support native species, which in turn can support farming productivity. If you are interested in Fairtrade and want to stay up-to-date on all things Fairtrade-related in St Andrews, like and follow the Fairtrade in St Andrews Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/FairtradeInStAndrews.
So, why is biodiversity important? Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth. Without it, life would be bland, not to mention difficult. Can you imagine living without seeing different types of plants, animals and climates? All organisms – big or small – play a role in a complex network of ecosystem dynamics. While we may not be conscious of it, we are dependent on these ecosystems for the services and resources that they provide. They act as storm buffers, pollution filters, water purifiers and climate regulators. Sand dunes on beaches serve to lessen the impact of storms, which is why there has been a concerted effort to restore West Sands in the past few years. Medicines, cosmetics and some foods come from plant species found in select parts of the world. If biodiversity “hot spots” like the Amazon Rainforest continue to be degraded and destroyed, our favorite foods will disappear from our diets, and we risk losing valuable cultural knowledge that can better inform us about plant and animal species. When it comes to buying food, try to educate yourself about the food’s origin by finding out where and how it was produced. While it may not be immediately obvious, those labels, like the Rainforest Alliance frog on the tea boxes, remind us that our lifestyle choices affect other species and people somewhere else in the world.
Nicholas Wells, Transition biodiversity intern