Blog post

Sustainable pathways beyond certification?

Published on
March 6, 2017

Outside, the sun was shining brightly. Inside, all bright heads were shining their lights on the future of voluntary certification of agricultural products and sustainable agriculture in general.

From 15 to 17 February a symposium on this topic was organised by colleagues from the SUSPENSE program of Wageningen University together with their counterparts from the SPIN program from the Maastricht University.

For me this was a perfect opportunity to get informed about state-of-the-art research, hear expert views on how (much) certification can contribute to a more sustainable agriculture, and to follow discussions on the role of public and private actors in this domain. Besides, it was a useful networking opportunity, meeting people that are working on the same research topic as I am.

One of the main outcomes of the research presented was that small scale farmers generally do not substantially benefit from certification programs. Often the costs for certification have to be paid by the farmer, but the benefits will not trickle down through the value chain to the farm level. Hence, there is no incentive for these farmers to join. If there is a family to feed, one focuses first on personal economic interests before sustainability considerations come to the fore. This made me think of a sort of ‘Maslov Pyramid’ for sustainability. Without guaranteeing a basic level of economic safety, it is a mission impossible to get small scale farmers attracted to sustainability issues.

Besides that certification does not simply lead to better livelihoods, it was also stated that the environmental and social accounts of certification schemes are inconclusive. The proliferation of the amount of certification schemes was also signalled as a worrying development and the small overall market share of certified products is a sign of its current limited impact on making agriculture more sustainable.

Besides reflecting on the current situation, the symposium was also forward-looking, posing questions on how sustainable agriculture can be reached and what pathways beyond certification can look like. Different interesting prospects were given. It was posed that we are maybe moving to a post-regulatory situation, in which certification schemes will take up other tasks beyond certification, like advocacy and capacity building activities. Other speakers emphasized the possibilities offered by a landscape approach (an approach based on public and private stakeholder involvement working on economic, social and environmental objectives inside a jurisdiction or landscape area) and several participants and speakers stressed the role of governments and public policy.  One speaker advocated for example for International, Commodity-related Environment Agreements and national frameworks for commodities.

OK, it is clear that certification is currently not completely delivering what we had hoped for, but does this mean that we have to discard certification and put all our hopes for a sustainable future to other measures and instruments? I wonder whether it’s wise to switch to something else and assume that that will ‘do the trick’. Why not try to fix the thing that doesn’t work first? We now know better what doesn’t work, so advice could also be guided towards improving certification. In addition, I believe that we have to accept that there is not one solution for all problems. Certification might be a valuable instrument for a specific segment of the market and for a specific sort of farmers. It will, however, never become a cure-all solution and should hence be complemented by other instruments and measures so that a broader portfolio will become available to guide the agricultural value chains towards a more sustainable future.

In my research I will investigate how certification is meta-governed* by public actors aiming at improving certification. The symposium has given me some ideas for case studies and has given interesting directions to further explore on my PhD-pathway! You will hear more about it in my next blog...

* meta-governance can be defined as a “higher-order governance transcending the concrete forms of governance through which social and economic life is shaped, regulated and transformed” (SØRensen & Torfing, 2009, p. 245). In other words, it can be defined as “governance of governance” (Jessop, 2011, p. 106). In relation to certification this means that certification schemes are defined as examples of regular governance and activities steering these certification schemes are examples of meta-governance, think for example of attempts to harmonize certification schemes.


Jessop, B. (2011). Metagovernance. In M. Bevir (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Governance (pp. 106-123). London: SAGE

SØRensen, E. V. A., & Torfing, J. (2009). Making Governance Networks Effective and Democratic through Metagovernance. Public Administration, 87(2), 234-258. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9299.2009.01753.x