Assessing the Utility of Food Certifications in Advancing Environmental Justice

Written by Shashank Anand, Hezekiah Grayer II, Anna Jacobson, and Harrison Watson

Sustainability is the notion that we should consume with caution, as the Earth is a delicately balanced ecosystem with limited natural resources. Social justice generally aims to eliminate disparities and inequities between discrete demographics. These include inequalities between persons of different socioeconomic status, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Environmental justice (EJ) intersects both of these movements: EJ is the notion that specific ecological burdens of society should be shared equitably across communities. Historical trends suggest that as we expand, consume, pollute, and produce, the benefits and costs of industrialization are inequitably distributed. This inequality comes at the cost of poor health for those living in highly polluted areas. Inequitable distribution of pollutants has recently brought EJ to the center of political discourse due to its correlation with increased Covid-19 mortality and racially skewed disease outcomes

Unfair treatment of workers at farms and manufacturing plants is a prime example of an injustice that ethical spending can aim to rectify. The misuse of pesticides, low worker wages, poor living conditions for farmers, and child labor are all sources of social and environmental injustices in food production. Socially conscious purchasing could be key in fighting these injustices. Academic institutions, which often purchase food en masse to serve thousands of individuals, have a sizable impact on humanity’s social and environmental footprint. Institutions like Princeton thus have a practical interest in reducing their footprint and a deontological obligation to mitigate their negative societal impact. 

Potential local food purchasing power of fourteen Michigan colleges and universities (Source: Michigan Good Food Work Group Report Series)

In general, it is difficult to assess the relative social and EJ impact of discrete products due to the inherently unquantifiable nature of justice. Certifications like Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance attempt to assuage buyers’ concerns by identifying and establishing environmentally just organizations. Certifications like USDA Organic and the Non-GMO Project endorse products and operations from an environmental sustainability standpoint. 

CASE STUDIES

Rainforest Alliance (RA) is an international NGO that provides certifications in sustainable agriculture, forestry, and tourism. RA seeks to “protect forests… and forest communities.” For farmers, the certification process involves site audits that check for compliance with the Rainforest Alliance Standards for Sustainable Agriculture. Standards include child labor protections and worker protection against the use of harmful pesticides listed in the Sustainable Agriculture Network Prohibited Pesticide List. RA Standards address economic and gender disparities on farms through the use of an “assess-and-address” approach. Farms are responsible for setting the goals that will mitigate the effects of “child labor, forced labor, discrimination, and workplace harassment and violence”. RA Standards also enforce implementation of a “salary matrix tool” for the collection of comprehensive wage data and identification of wage gaps. 

Support from RA has historically proven impactful, most notably on certified cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer. A 2011 survey conducted by the Committee on Sustainability Assessment analyzed the impact of RA on the economic, environmental, and social dynamics of these cocoa farms. RA certification was shown to increase school attendance (noted as the percentage of children who have completed the appropriate number of grades for their age) by 392%, thereby reducing child labor; increase crop yields by 172%; and improve farm income by 356% compared to uncertified farms (see figures 4, 6, and 10 at this link). Despite these documented successes, there has been a history of exploitation of previous Standards on certified farms. In 2019, for example, pineapple farms in Costa Rica were cited employing undocumented workers and illegal agrochemicals despite RA restrictions. 

Fair Trade USA (FTU) is a certification that focuses on social and EJ much like RA does. FTU cites ideals in democratic and fair working conditions for its workers. FTU employs an Impact Management System (IMS) towards these ends; the IMS is used to assess the social and economic impact of growers’ practices. FTU is distinct from its well-known parent company, Fairtrade International: the two split in 2012 over a dispute about certified growers’ company size. 

FTU implements a price premium, ensuring that if the market value of a product falls, FTU products have a floor price on store shelves, thus ensuring workers earn some minimum wage. FTU also requires a small additional fee, the “Fair Trade Premium”, on top of the purchase price of the product. The premium is used to improve local infrastructure for the producers. How it is used is decided democratically by workers at the farm. In a poor economy, Fair Trade products are likely to be pricier than their uncertified counterparts. In a thriving economy with high demand, this difference will be negligible (see figure 1 at this link). A 2009 case study of coffee production in Nicaragua found that many Fair Trade coffee producers still had trouble finding places to sell their coffee. In times of high coffee prices, producers found that they reaped little financial benefit from the Fair Trade label. 

The Non-GMO Project (NGP) certifies distributors and farms whose procedures align with “standards consumers expect.” Certification is obtained after evaluation of the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in produced foods. GMO crops are often bred to be more resistant to drought or pests. This may lead them to outcompete local crops and flora. Combined with the potential unknown behavior of these nonnative crop variants and risk of gene flow, e.g. through cross-pollination, many communities want to keep excessive GMO cultivation out of their neighborhoods. NGP upholds the long-standing Non-GMO Standard, which outlines requirements for companies looking to sport the butterfly label. These standards necessitate greater coordination between cleaning and transference of products between storage facilities (termed “elevators”) as well as increased investments in process monitoring to account for the potential introduction of GMOs along the production process. NGP partners with third-party certification bodies (also known as technical administrators) that audit businesses and farms for compliance with all Non-GMO Standards. Application fees, as well as Non-GMO product premiums, contribute to the conservation of environmental health through the protection of genetic diversity in organic agriculture. 

USDA Organic was created by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which mandated the USDA to develop federal-level regulations in the US for organic food. It was actualized in 2002, after 10 years of public debate, as a compulsory certification requiring producers and handlers with annual organic sales greater than $5,000 to discontinue the use of prohibited substances. To ensure the insulation of formed policies from special interest groups, OFPA also instituted the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that includes 15 volunteers representing the consumer, organic farmer/handler, retailer, scientist, and environmental conservationist. A two-thirds majority of NOSB is required to add a material in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (NLAPS). Third-party certifying agents issue the product as organic after confirming that the producer or handler has discontinued the use of prohibited substances for three years. 

USDA Organic and a growing market for organic produce have resulted in high product premiums. Unfortunately, a booming market does not guarantee good wages, living standards, or fair treatment for farm labor. There are cases recorded where working conditions have worsened due to the heavy work and time demands of organic farming. Some new programs build on USDA Organic’s structure with additional focus on standards for animal welfare and worker fairness. Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) is an example of such a program. It is too early to determine whether these certification programs will be successful or will earn the trust of the market.

DISCUSSION 

Consumer activism flourishes with effective metrics on desired qualities (e.g., EJ) to inform conscientious purchasing. Certification efficacy for social and EJ depends on two main questions: on a policy level, how relevant are the certifications’ guidelines to the social and EJ movement? In practice, how successfully are rules enforced; are audits thorough, unbiased, and based on clear criteria? These questions help us establish whether certifications actually impact procedure at the farm-level. Certifications lacking in the first quality risk being irrelevant to social and EJ, while certifications lacking in the second risk being inconsequential. 

The missions of certifications like RFA and FTU to enable sustainable livelihoods for farmworkers and promote environmental stewardship are in line with core tenets of social and EJ. However, the auditing processes of these certifications have demonstrated weaknesses, as noted by recent RFA-certified pineapple farms in Costa Rica. Furthermore, the guidelines for these certifications may be poorly communicated with farm workers as shown by a study from Vakila and Nygren on Nicaraguan Fair Trade-certified coffee farms. 

USDA Organic and NGP are more closely aligned with environmental sustainability than social or EJ, yet they have more streamlined auditing processes because sustainability can be more directly quantified (e.g., unit volume of water usage). USDA Organic, for example, strictly regulates pesticides and herbicides, thus protecting farm workers’ health. Prohibited chemicals in NLAPS include methyl bromide, sulfuryl fluoride, and phosphine (aluminum phosphide or magnesium phosphide), exposure to which can affect fetal development and can lead to irreversible damage. NGP, on the other hand, does not regulate chemical substances; on the contrary, the products it promotes forgo the health benefits associated with reduced pesticide use in farming GM crops. In general, many larger social justice themes (minimum wage, underage labor, unfair working conditions) are not addressed by these sustainability certifications. 

The cost of buy-in is one major obstacle for smaller distributors. For example, the harvest process for GMOs and Non-GMOs must be separated to prevent contamination, leading to more labor for farmworkers. Investigations check for use of USDA Organic’s prohibited substances for three years leading up to product harvest; a waiting period that may prove prohibitive to some smaller farms. These smaller farms may not be able to afford the fees of the certification process, or the costs of regulations/liability insurance as required by schools’ procurement offices. Interviews with local players in food distribution, however, alleviated these concerns: Ms. Linda Recine of Princeton Dining Services confirmed that many small farms have difficulties affording the certification label, but asserted that a network of farmers, larger distributors, and university support systems help small businesses obtain necessary certifications and build a sustainable customer base. She cited a pilot conference hosted by the Princeton University Department of Finance and Treasury and Princeton University Central Procurement. This conference focused on woman-, veteran-, and minority-owned businesses; through the conference, Princeton offered to subsidize the first year of various certifications at no cost to the vendor. For obtaining expensive liability insurance, as well, outside help proves paramount: Ms. Recine says that many small farms may be able to get their goods onto campus by partnering with larger distributors. Jim Kinsel of Honeybrook Organic Farm stated that open communication with customers about the certification waiting period usually assuages their concerns about uncertified crops. 

Image of tomatoes being grown on a farm (Source: Canva Images)

Cost of buy-in shows that many certifiable farms may lack a formal label. Additionally, if farms pursuing certification already employ environmentally just practices before they apply for the label, we may see biases which interfere with our ability to assess certification efficacy objectively. A recent meta-study confirmed that many reports investigating the efficacy of certifications did not control for possible selection bias. 

With certifications alone, we are left with an incomplete picture of ethical consumption. If EJ certifications rely on vague self-improvement, sustainability certifications are not as justice-relevant, and all certifications are audited by third parties whose reliability is hard to ascertain, is a certification stamp on a unit of packaging truly enough to assert that a product was ethically produced? The ethical consumer is caught between a rock and a hard place; incomplete information makes it impossible to gauge EJ using certification labels alone. We will need additional information from producers to rely more comfortably on the value of consumer certifications. 

The solution to these concerns may lie in local purchasing. Sarah Bavuso and Linda Recine of Princeton Dining Services emphasized the importance of forming relationships with producers, citing the value of allowing farmers to see the campus and of university officials taking trips to farms and production sites. This relationship allows Princeton to be more hands-on with its food and to interfere when questions of ethics arise. Indeed, a 2007 study suggests that forming relationships with local farms decreases the distance that products travel, allows for cooperative relationships with individual farmers, and introduces flexibility in verification processes. 

Decreasing food-miles through local purchasing may be a critical component of both sustainability and EJ: as food travels and the supply chain lengthens, more middlemen get involved, and there are more opportunities for injustices and unsustainable practices. Each border that food passes through serves as another regulatory vulnerability for the introduction of harmful pesticides and food contamination. At each stop on the road, food loses freshness and emits greenhouse gases (GHGs) by burning fossil fuel through transit. Additionally, laws and regulations are more easily ascertained locally: consumers are more likely to know the minimum wage and regulations on working conditions for farms near their own homes. 

Local farms may also be smaller and more sustainable than larger national chains. Mr. Kinsel claims that larger farms are more likely to cut corners in the name of profit. While Ms. Recine confirms that larger producers may be less inclined to act ethically, she states that these farms have “come a long way” towards humane and ethical behavior, largely thanks to students and universities vocally lobbying for causes that were important to them. Purchasing certified food that is also locally grown may address many of the concerns introduced by the information gap mentioned above. 

Image of vegetables displayed at an outdoor stand (Source: Canva Images)

CONCLUSION 

Rather than relying entirely on certifications like USDA Organic, a supply chain can be created where the university shares the risk of crop production under unpredictable hydroclimatic conditions with the local farming community. One realization of a more local supply chain is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where schools select membership for a season and receive fixed volumes of freshly harvested produce from local farms. Students receive fresh and nutritional food from farms that abide by local regulations. Farmers get money from subscriptions upfront, allowing them to expand and invest early. Schools build working relationships with constituent farms and their management, creating a point-person on the farm grounds who can verify safe conditions for farmers. Many local farms in the Princeton area (like the Snapping Turtle Farm and the Cherry Grove Organic Farm) already have some of the same certifications as larger factory farms. 

A CSA supply chain would fit neatly into many residential colleges for small portions of salads or boiled eggs and meats. Non-perishable products like crackers and cereals could still be purchased from larger certified producers. In this supply chain, certifications are relied upon for goods that are difficult to buy from local producers. The local economy around the university is enhanced by the CSA program employed for fruits, vegetables, and meats. There are, of course, logistic questions to be resolved: a supply chain where crop proportions are not predetermined is quite different from the institutional status quo. The feasibility of such a supply chain will likely need to be vetted through a pilot program or a case study of other institutions implementing a similar program. CSAs have been implemented on some scale at schools like the University of KentuckyRutgers University, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. We suggest schools start small: by implementing a CSA supply chain in an on-campus cafe or residential college. The program can be scaled up over time, after feasibility studies and conversations with local farmers. 

The feasibility of establishing a local supply chain will depend on how universities currently source their food. Ms. Bavuso indicated that many schools fall into one of two classes: self-operated schools, whose food procurement departments are university-run and in-house, and non-self-operated schools, whose food procurement is outsourced via contracts. Many schools employ some combination of these operations, with state schools being particularly strictly regulated via contracts (Aramark, University of Delaware; Sodexo, The College of New Jersey). Self-operated schools like Princeton will likely have more flexibility in vetting and choosing vendors. Non-self-operated schools aiming for social change will likely have to do so by lobbying distributors through the schools’ purchasing power or threatening to withdraw their business if practices are not improved. Not all schools will have the means to investigate each food product on their shelves: it will likely be useful to leverage an inter-school consortium of food procurement research, see the National Association of College & University Food Services, allowing inter-institutional procurement departments to swap findings and relevant research. 

The authors of this article do not wish to claim that certifications are entirely ineffective in gauging the social and EJ of food procurement. But certifications are not a panacea for ethical supply chains. Universities relying solely on these certifications for assessing food safety and social and EJ are not doing due diligence when it comes to ethical spending. It may take additional effort to switch to a CSA-style supply chain like the one suggested above; but if institutions are serious about the values that they promote in their dining services brochures, this added effort will be well worth the improvement seen in the quality and justice of the campus food. 

Princeton’s president Christopher Eisgruber wrote in June of 2020: “As a University, we must examine all aspects of this institution — from our scholarly work to our daily operations—with a critical eye and a bias toward action. This will be an ongoing process, one that depends on concrete and reasoned steps[.]” The authors of this article believe that a CSA pilot program would be one such concrete step towards action, a step that would be directly in line with the larger themes of environmental and social justice that have become more pronounced in the societal collective consciousness during recent years. At the very least, it is the duty of university procurement departments to state the steps they intend to take to address inequity. Princeton’s recent Supplier Diversity Plan is one example of such an effort in that it aims to support more diverse-owned businesses. As entities with large economic impacts, universities do have the power to effect real societal change. 


Shashank Anand: I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, working with Prof. Amilcare Porporato. My research focuses on understanding the role of ecohydrological and geomorphological processes in the evolving landscape topography by analyzing process-based models and learning from the available observations.

Hezekiah Grayer II: I am a 2nd year PhD candidate in the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics, where I am fortunate to advised by Prof. Peter Constantin. My academic goals intersect fluid mechanics, plasma physics, and partial differential equations.

Anna Jacobson: I am a 3rd year PhD candidate in the department of Quantitative and Computational Biology. I am affiliated with the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. For my thesis work, I study energy systems and environmental policy.

Harrison Watson: I am a Ph.D Candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology working with Professors Lars Hedin, Rob Pringle, and Corina Tarnita. My work currently focuses on clarifying the forces that influence land carbon cycles using eastern and southern African savannas as a study system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.