An innovative project is developing on-farm sustainability assessments which could revolutionise farming, consumer choices and even international trade. Jez Fredenburgh reports.
Pressure is mounting on farmers and the food chain to produce food more sustainably.
But there is a problem.
There is currently no universal system which accurately and effectively measures how sustainable a product is.
In addition, about £116 billion of environmental and health-related costs are not included in the retail price of food, according to research by the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT).
These two factors mean consumers cannot accurately compare products on sustainability; not just in a range, but across brands, food types, countries and individual farms.
At the other end of the chain, farmers who work at being as sustainable as possible do not often get proper recognition and reward, while there is little incentive for the biggest polluters to change.
For the past four years though, the SFT and a group of farmers and land managers have been developing a framework which would allow the sustainability of individual farms (and therefore products) to be measured.
If retailers and food manufacturers get on board, it is hoped a standardised labelling system would communicate the metrics to consumers.
And if governments globally become involved, it could reshape how food is traded.
Patrick Holden, SFT director, said: “I think it is the solution to all the confusion about what sustainable food actually is and the most refreshing thing is that farmers and land managers have developed this themselves.
“In order to get an accurate assessment of the impact of farm level externalities, you have to have a way of measuring it through a harmonised or common framework, not just in the UK but throughout the world.
“At the moment, there are more than 100 sustainability assessment tools out there globally. It is very confusing.”
“What we have been working on assesses farm sustainability impacts, both positive and negative.
“[Imagine it were a balance sheet], the balance sheet is the net impact of the farm practice in a year on the stocks of natural and human capital.”
If adopted, Mr Holden said it could also encourage more farmers to farm sustainably.
He said: “Unless externalities are factored in there is little business case in farming to address climate change.
“I am not saying it is not there at all, because if you are the beneficiary of environmental stewardship payments, or if you are producing food for a niche market, it might pay, but we need mainstream adoption of sustainable farming practices, not niche.”
A set of categories and associated metrics, indicators and data collection are being developed and will form the basis of the framework.
For example, ‘soil’ is a category, with organic matter, structure and soil biodiversity used as a measure of sustainability. Another category is ‘social capital’, with metrics of education, community engagement and public access.
The aim is to converge the system to form a template applicable to any farm, whether in the UK, Australia or Africa.
Farmers would collect data themselves and be assessed externally according to requirements by their own authorities or certification bodies.
Including other externalities, such as transport, which is particularly applicable when measuring carbon footprints of imported food, would be ‘integral’, said Mr Holden.
“The logical extension is also to [in future] give farmers information on products they buy too.”
She said: “As a large company, we have a responsibility to work closely with multiple stakeholders to agree global standards, which ultimately impact our operations and ways of working with our value chain partners.
“Along with Government, farmers, growers and manufacturers, retailers need to take a leading role in ensuring metrics are used effectively to guarantee both food producers and consumers have access to accurate data, information and insights.”
He said: “This has clearly led to a burden upon farmers who are often asked to report to different approaches and standards, and also brought a confusion with consumers given the range of labels being used.
“We support any attempt to bring a convergence to how we can assess performance and especially where there is a rigorous farmer-led approach.
“We would certainly look carefully at this and indeed any approach that is making a difference on the ground and can bring value along the whole chain from farmers to consumers.”
Mr Hambling said: “It must take into account factors such as carbon sequestration on-farm.
“Thousands of farmers will have already done some form of carbon footprinting, but experience shows using different models can result in big discrepancies in results.
“It is crucial everyone in the supply chain is able to use comparable metrics and tools to ensure consistency and better inform business decisions.
“In our net zero report, we highlight the need for single integrated measures which capture a range of agronomic and environmental factors and we continue to urge the Government to further its work in this area.”
Defra is trialling the framework on 25 farms while it develops the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, and the SFT is advocating that annual audits become a precondition for receiving payments.
The Welsh Government is also working on a similar scheme which would involve annual sustainability audits.
The SFT has also been in discussion with certification bodies and food manufacturers, while ‘significant interest’ is being shown by the banking and accounting industry, which wants a common way to assess investment in sustainable agriculture.
Mr Holden said: “Retailers are the one category which have not really engaged. They all have an interest in maintaining their own branding. The farming community has to take it back into its own hand.
“It is possible we will need legislation to ensure it happens. The key to this scheme is adoption by Government.”
The SFT plans to take its idea to the global climate change conference, COP26, due to be held in Glasgow in November, with big ambitions.
Mr Holden said: “We need an international framework which would inform trade and sustainable food production, the equivalent of a climate change agreement, food collaboration throughout the world.
“It seems so obvious to me that is what we need to do and what better way for the UK to lead the world.”
Mr Holden hopes the framework could be used in future trade talks too.
“Why do we not agree that international trade should be framed in relation to sustainability, so if our farmers are producing food to higher environmental standards than the US and the US wants to [export] food to our market, we should be [negotiating] a tariff or tax payment so our farmers are not disadvantaged.
“We do not want to have a spat about chlorinated chicken, we need to think much bigger than that.”
Certification bodies in the US and Australia are eyeing up the framework and the European Commission is also interested.