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World Experts on Agriculture and Environment Advise on Measurable Criteria for Biofuel Farms and Other Crops

January 23, 2008

Twelve of the world's leading experts in equitable, ethical and eco-friendly agriculture have advised the Sustainable Agriculture Network to take up the life-threatening challenges presented by biofuels. Rapidly expanding oil palm and sugar plantations for biofuels are displacing wildlife, communities and small farmers.

The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), the oldest and largest coalition of NGOs striving to improve commodity production in the tropics, develops criteria for responsible farm management. Those farms that can meet the criteria are awarded the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal of approval. Since 1992, more than 23,000 plantations, small family farms and cooperatives in 18 countries have met the detailed standards, which protect workers and wildlife, conserve natural resources, and help farmers turn a profit.

The twelve members of the recently formed International Standards Committee were elected by the network to serve as voluntary advisors. The committee met for the first time in November 2007 in Costa Rica and finalized their recommendations to the network in January 2008. They approved a process for extending the SAN standards to cover nearly any crop, including those grown for fuel.

Oliver Bach, manager of standards and policy for the SAN, said that the standards guide farmers to manage their crops and workers in a responsible way, and they are the basis of the annual audits for every farm in the program. The SAN standards have been revised many times with input from farmers, NGOs, scientists, environmentalists, advocates for labor rights, governments and global groups such as the International Labour Organisation. It is the only standard for tropical agriculture that was developed in the South and is managed by a coalition of NGOs.

"We have several mechanisms to keep the standards current with the latest science and farming practices while at the same time honoring local traditions and knowledge," Bach said. "The new advisory committee, which brings together some of the best minds and experience in sustainable agriculture, ensures that we are going in the right direction."

The committee, which includes experts from ten countries, reviewed many highly technical proposals for standards structure, organization and content. They agreed to fold the specialized criteria for bananas, cocoa, tea, coffee and other crops into one document and then to extend the standards to cover nearly any farm product. The discussion became impassioned as the group considered how to address biofuels. Conservationists worldwide are concerned about the ill-considered impacts of biofuel production on food prices, biodiversity, freshwater supplies, indigenous peoples and smallholders. Other groups are setting standards for biofuels, and the advisory committee wants to be certain that the SAN has a meaningful and important role.

"We believe that farm management must meet the same high standards, maximizing the social values and minimizing the environmental impacts, whether the crops are enjoyed for food or burned for fuel," said committee member Luis Fernando Guedes Pinto, executive director of the Institute for Agricultural and Forestry Management and Certification (IMAFLORA), a leading NGO in Brazil and a member of the SAN.

The general SAN standards have hundreds of detailed checkpoints that allow a farmer or auditor to accurately evaluate farm management practices. Any additional criteria developed for crops such as oil palm and sugar will be embedded into the omnibus standard.

The SAN has begun a round of public consultations for the new addendum to the standards. This process will include local stakeholder workshops in 12 countries, meetings with expert groups and a special Web site, where any interested farmer, scientist, activist, specialist or consumer can make comments. Ensuring that all views are considered makes the resulting standards strong, comprehensive and enriched by sustainability experiences and knowledge from around the world.

The SAN complies with the internationally accepted code of good practice in standard setting, issued by the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance (ISEAL), a coalition of NGO leaders in certification. In addition, the standard is aligned with the requirements of the World Trade Organization.

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