Upgraded certification scheme, covering over 2 million farmers, will use technology to help them adapt to climate change, protect forests and spot social risks
(Updates to add Ivory Coast farms lost certification in para 16)
By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, July 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Rainforest Alliance will bolster its food certification scheme to ensure growers and brands make better use of technology to tackle climate change, respect human rights and invest in sustainable farming, the green group said.
International certification bodies the Rainforest Alliance and UTZ merged in 2018, and provide ethical labelling for coffee, tea, cocoa and bananas, to meet growing consumer demand.
"Sustainability certification has changed dramatically over the last five to 10 years - there are now much bigger challenges," said Ruth Rennie, director of standards and assurance at the Rainforest Alliance, a U.S.-based non-profit.
"Climate change is pushing new challenges our way all the time. Social inequalities are rising in the world. We need to be looking at those things constantly," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
To adapt to climate change, certified farmers will assess the risks they face, put in place emergency measures to cope with floods and drought, and consider climate resilience in their choice of crops, she added.
Consumers are demanding more information on where their products come from, and expect brands to show they are having a positive environmental and social impact, Rennie said.
Globally, more than 2 million farmers now use the Alliance's certification schemes, which help to ensure commodities are not linked to deforestation and can be tracked from grower to buyer.
Producers must also adopt good agricultural practices and water management, and have systems to address issues like child and forced labour and workers' rights.
More than 5,000 food buyers and companies source ingredients from the schemes, including Nestle, Unilever, Hershey Co, Walmart, Dole and Chiquita.
The revised standard - which will replace existing schemes and use the Alliance's green frog seal - was developed over two years in consultation with more than 1,000 people in nearly 50 countries.
It will shift away from a "pass-fail" system using auditors towards a "continuous improvement" model that identifies and tackles future risks, Rennie said.
Members will have to comply with strengthened criteria on forest protection and social issues, while also looking at where climate and human rights risks occur in their supply chains and creating a plan to overcome them, she said.
Better use of technology and data is a critical part of the new scheme, with members expected to use monitoring tools to pinpoint risks like deforestation as they arise, she added.
The new programme will also introduce a mandatory premium or investment to support food producers' sustainability efforts.
"We can't just expect farmers to meet all the costs to get certified, with no real return," Rennie said.
The Washington Post reported last year that UTZ had found farms it certified in top cocoa producer Ivory Coast were more likely to employ child labour than those not certified, while many were in protected forests. They subsequently lost their certification.
Registration for the new standard will begin in January, with the new requirements becoming mandatory from July 2021.
Darrell High, cocoa plan head for Nestle, which recently decided to source cocoa for its KitKat chocolate bars from Rainforest Alliance producers as for other snacks it makes, welcomed the new emphasis on "continuous improvement".
"We are confident this will help create more positive impact for farmers and their communities over time," he said in a statement. (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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