Press release

Booming sustainable agriculture market can help save endangered species, habitat: study

The booming sustainable agriculture market can help save endangered species and stem an alarming loss of habitat, but a new study has found that policy-makers must also play their part.

December 4, 2016

Cancun, Mexico, December 5, 2016—The booming sustainable agriculture market can help save endangered species and stem an alarming loss of habitat, but a new study has found that policy-makers must also play their part.

Most voluntary sustainability initiatives—like Fairtrade International, the Rainforest Alliance or Ethical Tea Partnership—incorporate key biodiversity criteria in their certification processes, according to the study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s (IISD’s) State of Sustainability Initiatives project.

“The market is rewarding these efforts to protect soil and water quality, conserve critical habitats and mitigate the impacts of climate change,” said study author Jason Potts, a senior associate at IISD. “Policy-makers can leverage voluntary standards initiatives in order to help achieve their biodiversity goals.”

The market value of certified products was estimated to be more than $50 billion in 2014 for 10 major commodities (bananas, cotton, coffee, cocoa, fisheries, forestry, tea, sugar, palm oil and soybean) the study found. That’s up from $43 billion in 2012, the previous estimate by the State of Sustainability Initiatives Review.

Agricultural production compliant with sustainability standards has grown at an average of 35 per cent per annum between 2008 and 2014, the study found.

Standards already cover a significant portion of some commodity markets. Half of global coffee production is standards-compliant, along with 30 per cent of cocoa production, 22 per cent of palm oil production and 18 per cent of global tea production.  

However, standards-compliant production accounts for only a small portion of total global agricultural land area, with minimal presence in major staple crops.

Thus standards initiatives will have to expand dramatically to have a significant impact, especially considering the fact that agriculture is responsible for 70 per cent of projected losses in terrestrial biodiversity due to widespread land conversion, pollution and soil degradation.

The study, released Monday at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Cancun, Mexico, identifies a number of opportunities to leverage the impact of voluntary sustainability standards.

  • Data gathered as part of the certification process can offer policy-makers and other stakeholders invaluable insight to support effective biodiversity management. However, this data is not currently public nor is there an integrated and harmonized system through which it can be shared and analyzed.
  • The reliance of voluntary standards on market forces for adoption represents a major financial resource for the implementation of biodiversity policy, but may also reduce the ability of initiatives to address biodiversity loss where it is needed most. Policy-makers can collaborate with voluntary standards to facilitate and provide incentives for adoption in areas where they will have maximum impact.
  • The distribution of standards-compliant production is primarily determined by where compliance costs are lowest rather than where need is greatest. Governments can provide financing to standards and research partners to determine biodiversity-specific impacts of agricultural production within specific crops so that these can be effectively integrated into the standards development and implementation processes.
  • To ensure market fairness and the overall effectiveness of the voluntary sustainability standards sector in meeting stated (biodiversity) objectives, policy-makers can set credibility, accuracy and evidence-based ground rules to ensure that market claims are supported by responsible practice and expected outcomes.

“There is a clear rationale for policy-makers to support the evolution of voluntary sustainability standards in ways that can help ensure that they play a constructive role in meeting biodiversity targets,” said study author Vivek Voora, an associate with IISD. “Voluntary sustainability standards offer an opportunity to reduce the impact of agriculture and to promote best practices, which can also improve yields and help to feed a growing population.”

The policy brief provides a summary of the findings of joint research conducted by IISD in collaboration with the Convention for Biological Diversity Secretariat analyzing the potential contribution of voluntary sustainability standards to support biodiversity protection. The State of Sustainability Initiatives Focus Report: Standards and Biodiversity to be released in 2017 will provide the full results.

It can be downloaded from IISD’s library here:

For more information, contact Damon Vis-Dunbar at or +41 78 818 0501 (in Geneva, Switzerland) or Mira Oberman at or +1 204 958-7700 ext 728 (in Winnipeg, Canada).

About IISD

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is an award-winning independent think tank working to accelerate solutions for a stable climate, sustainable resource management, and fair economies. Our work inspires better decisions and sparks meaningful action to help people and the planet thrive. We shine a light on what can be achieved when governments, businesses, non-profits, and communities come together. IISD’s staff of more than 250 experts come from across the globe and from many disciplines. With offices in Winnipeg, Geneva, Ottawa, and Toronto, our work affects lives in nearly 100 countries.