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Way Beyond Greenwashing: Have Corporations Captured Big Conservation?

February 7, 2012 (Un)Sustainable Farming, Commentaries, Environment 25 Comments

Jonathan Latham (Photo Credit: auspices)

Imagine an international mega-deal. The global organic food industry agrees to support international agribusiness in clearing as much tropical rainforest as they want for farming. In return, agribusiness agrees to farm the now-deforested land using organic methods, and the organic industry encourages its supporters to buy the resulting timber and food under the newly devised “Rainforest Plus” label. There would surely be an international outcry.

Virtually unnoticed, however, even by their own memberships, the world’s biggest wildlife conservation groups have agreed exactly to such a scenario, only in reverse. Led by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), many of the biggest conservation nonprofits including Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy have already agreed to a series of global bargains with international agribusiness. In exchange for vague promises of habitat protection, sustainability and social justice, these conservation groups are offering to greenwash industrial commodity agriculture.

The big conservation nonprofits don’t see it that way of course. According to WWF ‘Vice President for Market Transformation’ Jason Clay, the new conservation strategy arose from two fundamental realizations.

The first was that agriculture and food production are the key drivers of almost every environmental concern. From issues as diverse as habitat destruction to over-use of water, from climate change to ocean dead zones, agriculture and food production are globally the primary culprits. To take one example, 80-90% of all fresh water abstracted by humans is for agriculture (e.g. FAO’s State of the World’s Land and Water report ).

This point was emphasized once again in a recent analysis published in the scientific journal Nature. The lead author of this study was Professor Jonathan Foley (Foley et al 2011). Not only is Foley the director of the University of Minnesota-based Institute on the Environment, but he is also a science board member of the Nature Conservancy.

The second crucial realization for WWF was that forest destroyers typically are not peasants with machetes but national and international agribusinesses with bulldozers. It is the latter who deforest tens of thousands of acres at a time. Land clearance on this scale is an ecological disaster, but Claire Robinson of Earth Open Source points out it is also “incredibly socially destructive”, as peasants are driven off their land and communities are destroyed. According to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 60 million people worldwide risk losing their land and means of subsistence from palm plantations.

By about 2004, WWF had come to appreciate the true impacts of industrial agriculture. Instead of informing their membership and initiating protests and boycotts, however, they embarked on a partnership strategy they call ‘market transformation’.

Market Transformation

With WWF leading the way, the conservation nonprofits have negotiated approval schemes for “Responsible” and “Sustainable” farmed commodity crops. According to Clay, the plan is to have agribusinesses sign up to reduce the 4-6 most serious negative impacts of each commodity crop by 70-80%. And if enough growers and suppliers sign up, then the Indonesian rainforests or the Brazilian Cerrado will be saved.

The ambition of market transformation is on a grand scale. There are schemes for palm oil (the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil; RSPO), soybeans (the Round Table on Responsible Soy; RTRS), biofuels (the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels), Sugar (Bonsucro) and also for cotton, shrimp, cocoa and farmed salmon. These are markets each worth many billions of dollars annually and the intention is for these new responsible and sustainable certified products to dominate them.

The reward for producers and supermarkets will be that, reinforced on every shopping trip, “Responsible” and “Sustainable” logos and marketing can be expected to have major effects on public perception of the global food supply chain. And the ultimate goal is that, if these schemes are successful, human rights, critical habitats, and global sustainability will receive a huge and globally significant boost.

The role of WWF and other nonprofits in these schemes is to offer their knowledge to negotiate standards, to provide credibility, and to lubricate entry of certified products into international markets. On its UK website, for example, WWF offers its members the chance to “Save the Cerrado” by emailing supermarkets to buy “Responsible Soy”. What WWF argues will be a major leap forward in environmental and social responsibility has already started. “Sustainable” and “Responsible” products are already entering global supply chains.

Reputational Risk

For conservation nonprofits these plans entail risk, one of which is simple guilt by association. The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) scheme is typical of these certification schemes. Its membership includes WWF, Conservation International, Fauna and Flora International, the Nature Conservancy, and other prominent nonprofits. Corporate members include repeatedly vilified members of the industrial food chain. As of January 2012, there are 102 members, including Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, Nestle, BP, and UK supermarket ASDA.

That is not the only risk. Membership in the scheme, which includes signatures on press-releases and sometimes on labels, indicates approval for activities that are widely opposed. The RTRS, for example, certifies soybeans grown in large-scale chemical-intensive monocultures. They are usually GMOs. They are mostly fed to animals. And they originate from countries with hungry populations. When 52% of Americans think GMOs are unsafe and 93% think GMOs ought to be labeled, for example, this is a risk most organizations dependent on their reputations probably would not consider.

The remedy for such reputational risk is high standards, rigorous certification and watertight traceability procedures. Only credibility at every step can deflect the seemingly obvious suspicion that the conservation nonprofits have been hoodwinked or have somehow ‘sold out’.

So, which one is it? Are “Responsible” and “Sustainable” certifications indicative of a genuine strategic success by WWF and its fellows, or are the schemes nothing more than business as usual with industrial scale greenwashing and a social justice varnish?

Low and Ambiguous Standards

The first place to look is the standards themselves. RTRS standards (version 1, June 2010), to continue with the example of soybeans, cover five ‘principles’. Principle 1 is: Legal Compliance and Good Business Practices. Principle 2 is: Responsible Labour Conditions. Principle 3 is: Responsible Community Relations. Principle 4 is Environmental Responsibility. Principle 5 is Good Agricultural Practice.

Language typical of the standards includes, under Principle 2, Responsible Labour Conditions, section 2.1.1 “No forced, compulsory, bonded, trafficked. or otherwise involuntary labor is used at any stage of production”, while section 2.4.4 states “Workers are not hindered from interacting with external parties outside working hours.”

Under Principle 3: Responsible Community Relations, section 3.3.3 states: “Any complaints and grievances received are dealt with in a timely manner.”

Under Principle 4: Environmental Responsibility, section 4.2 states “Pollution is minimized and production waste is managed responsibly” and section 4.4 states “Expansion of soy cultivation is responsible”.

Under Principle 5: Good Agricultural Practice, Section 5.9 states “Appropriate measures are implemented to prevent the drift of agrochemicals to neighboring areas.”

These samples illustrate the tone of the RTRS principles and guidance.

There are two ways to read these standards. The generous interpretation is to recognize that the sentiments expressed are higher than what are actually practiced in many countries where soybeans are grown, in that the standards broadly follow common practice in Europe or North America. Nevertheless, they are far lower than organic or fairtrade standards; for example they don’t require crop rotation, or prohibit pesticides. Even a generous reading also needs to acknowledge the crucial point that adherence to similar requirements in Europe and North America has contaminated wells, depleted aquifers, degraded rivers, eroded the soil, polluted the oceans, driven species to extinction and depopulated the countryside—to mention only a few well-documented downsides.

There is also a less generous interpretation of the standards. Much of the content is either in the form of statements, or it is merely advice. Thus section 4.2 reads “Pollution is minimized and production waste is managed responsibly.” Imperatives, such as: must, may never, will, etc., are mostly lacking from the document. Worse, key terms such as “pollution”, “minimized”, “responsible” and “timely” (see above) are left undefined. This chronic vagueness means that both certifiers and producers possess effectively infinite latitude to implement or judge the standards. They could never be enforced, in or out of court.

Dubious Verification and Enforcement

Unfortunately, the flaws of RTRS certification do not end there. They include the use of an internal verification system. The RTRS uses professional certifiers, but only those who are members of RTRS. This means that the conservation nonprofits are relying on third parties for compliance information. It also means that only RTRS members can judge whether a principle was adhered to. And even if they consider it was not, there is nothing they can do, since the RTRS has no legal status or sanctions.

The ‘culture’ of deforestation is also important to the standards. Rainforest clearance is often questionably legal, or actively illegal, and usually requires removing existing occupants from the land. It is a world of private armies and bribery. This operating environment makes very relevant the irony under which RTRS members, under Principle 1, volunteer to obey the law. The concept of volunteering to obey the law begs more than a few questions. If an organization is not already obeying the law, what makes WWF suppose that a voluntary code of conduct will persuade it? And does obeying the law meaningfully contribute to a marketing campaign based on responsibility?

Of equal concern is the absence of a clear certification trail. Under the “Mass Balance” system offered by RTRS, soybeans (or derived products) can be sold as “Responsible” that were never grown under the system. Mass Balance means vendors can transfer the certification quantity purchased, to non-RTRS soybeans. Such an opportunity raises the inherent difficulties of traceability and verification to new levels.

How Will Certification Save Wild Habitats?

A key stated goal of WWF is to halt deforestation through the use of maps identifying priority habitat areas that are off-limits to RTRS members. There are crucial questions over these maps, however. Firstly, even though RTRS soybeans are already being traded they have yet to be drawn up. Secondly, the maps are to be drawn up by RTRS members themselves. Thirdly, under the scheme RTRS maps can be periodically redrawn. Fourthly, RTRS members need not certify all of their production acreage. This means they can certify part of their acreage as “Responsible”, but still sell (as “Irresponsible”?) soybeans from formerly virgin habitat. This means WWF’s target for year 2020 of 25% coverage globally and 75% in WWF’s ‘priority areas’ would still allow 25% of the Brazilian soybean harvest to come from newly deforested land. And of course, the scheme cannot prevent non-members, or even non-certified subsidiaries, from specializing in deforestation (1).

These are certification schemes, therefore, with low standards, no methods of enforcement, and enormous loopholes (2). Pete Riley of UK GM Freeze dubs their instigator the “World Wide Fund for naiveté” and believes “the chances of Responsible soy saving the Cerrado are zero.” (3). Claire Robinson agrees: “The RTRS standard will not protect the forests and other sensitive ecosystems. Additionally, it greenwashes soy that’s genetically modified to survive being sprayed with quantities of herbicide that endanger human health and the environment.” There is even a website (www.toxicsoy.org) dedicated to exposing the greenwashing of GMO Soy.

Many other groups apparently share that view. More than 250 large and small sustainable farming, social justice and rainforest preservation groups from all over the world signed a “Letter of Critical Opposition to the RTRS” in 2009. Signatories included the Global Forest Coalition, Friends of the Earth, Food First, the British Soil Association and the World Development Movement.

Other commodity certifications involving WWF have also received strong criticism. The Mangrove Action Project in 2008 published a ‘Public Declaration Against the Process of Certification of Industrial Shrimp Aquaculture’ while the World Rainforest Movement issued the ‘Declaration against the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)’, signed by 256 organizations in October 2008.

What Really Drives Commodity Certification?

Commodity certification is in many ways a strange departure for conservation nonprofits. In the first place the big conservation nonprofits are more normally active in acquiring and researching wild habitats. Secondly, as membership organizations it is hard to envisage these schemes energizing the membership—how many members of the Nature Conservancy will be pleased to find that their organization has been working with Monsanto to promote GM crops as “Responsible”? Indeed, one can argue that these programs are being actively concealed from their members, donors and the public. From their advertising, their websites, and their educational materials, one would presume that poachers, population growth and ignorance are the chief threats to wildlife in developing countries. It is not true, however, and as Jason Clay and the very existence of these certification schemes make clear, senior management knows it well.

In public, the conservation nonprofits justify market transformation as cooperative; they wish to work with others, not against them. However, they have chosen to work preferentially with powerful and wealthy corporations. Why not cooperate instead with small farmers’ movements, indigenous groups, and already successful standards, such as fairtrade, organic and non-GMO? These are causes that could use the help of big international organizations. Why not, with WWF help, embed into organic standards a rainforest conservation element? Why not cooperate with your membership to create engaged consumer power against habitat destruction, monoculture, and industrial farming? Instead, the new “Responsible” and “Sustainable” standards threaten organic, fairtrade, and local food systems—which are some of the environmental movement’s biggest successes.

One clue to the enthusiasm for ‘market transformation’ may be that financial rewards are available. According to Nina Holland of Corporate Europe Observatory, certification is “now a core business” for WWF. Indeed, WWF and the Dutch nonprofit Solidaridad are currently receiving millions of euros from the Dutch government (under its Sustainable Trade Action Plan) to support these schemes. According to the plan 67 million euros have already been committed, and similar amounts are promised (4).

The Threat From the Food Movement

Commodity certification schemes like RTRS can be seen as an inability of global conservation leadership to work constructively with the ordinary people who live in and around wild areas of the globe; or they can be seen as a disregard for fairtrade and organic labels; or as a lost opportunity to inform and energize members and potential members as to the true causes of habitat destruction; or even as a cynical moneymaking scheme. These are all plausible explanations of the enthusiasm for certification schemes and probably each plays a part. None, however, explains why conservation nonprofits would sign up to schemes whose standards and credibility are so low. Especially when, as never before, agribusiness is under pressure to change its destructive social and environmental practices.

The context of these schemes is that we live at an historic moment. Positive alternatives to industrial agriculture, such as fairtrade, organic agriculture, agroecology and the System of Rice Intensification, have shown they can feed the planet, without destroying it, even with a greater population. Consequently, there is now a substantial international consensus of informed opinion (IAASTD) that industrial agriculture is a principal cause of the current environmental crisis and the chief obstacle to hunger eradication.

This consensus is one of several roots of the international food movement. As a powerful synergism of social justice, environmental, sustainability and food quality concerns, the food movement is a clear threat to the long-term existence of the industrial food system. (Incidentally, this is why big multinationals have been buying up ethical brands.)

Under these circumstances, evading the blame for the environmental devastation of the Amazon, Asia and elsewhere, undermining organic and other genuine certification schemes, and splitting the environmental movement must be a dream come true for members of the industrial food system. A true cynic might surmise that the food industry could hardly have engineered it better had they planned it themselves.

Who Runs Big Conservation?

To guard against such possibilities, nonprofits are required to have boards of directors whose primary legal function is to guard the mission of the organization and to protect its good name. In practice, for conservation nonprofits this means overseeing potential financial conflicts and preventing the organization from lending its name to greenwashing.

So, who are the individuals guarding the mission of global conservation nonprofits? US-WWF boasts (literally) that its new vice-chair was the last CEO of Coca-Cola, Inc. (a member of Bonsucro) and that another board member is Charles O. Holliday Jr., the current chairman of the board of Bank of America, who was formerly CEO of DuPont (owner of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a major player in the GMO industry). The current chair of the executive board at Conservation International, is Rob Walton, better known as chair of the board of WalMart (which now sells ‘sustainably sourced’ food and owns the supermarket chain ASDA). The boards of WWF and Conservation International do have more than a sprinkling of members with conservation-related careers. But they are heavily outnumbered by business representatives. On the board of Conservation International, for example, are GAP, Intel, Northrop Grumman, JP Morgan, Starbucks and UPS, among others.

At the Nature Conservancy its board of directors has only two members (out of 22) who list an active affiliation to a conservation organization in their board CV (Prof Gretchen Daly and Cristian Samper, head of the US Museum of Natural History). Only one other member even mentions among their qualifications an interest in the subject of conservation. The remaining members are, like Shona Brown, an employee of Google and a board member of Pepsico, or Margaret Whitman who is the current President and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, or Muneer A Satter, a managing director of Goldman Sachs.

So, was market transformation developed with the support of these boards or against their wishes? The latter is hardly likely. The key question then becomes: did these boards in fact instigate market transformation? Did it come from the very top?

Never Ending

Leaving aside whether conservation was ever their true intention, it seems highly unlikely that WWF and its fellow conservation groups will leverage a positive transformation of the food system by bestowing “Sustainable” and “Responsible” standards on agribusiness.  Instead, it appears much more likely that, by undermining existing standards and offering worthless standards of their own, habitat destruction and human misery will only increase.

Market transformation, as envisaged by WWF, nevertheless might have worked. However, WWF neglected to consider that successful certification schemes historically have started from the ground up. Organic and fairtrade began with a large base of committed farmers determined to fashion a better food system. Producers willingly signed up to high standards and clear requirements because they believed in them. Indeed, many already were practicing high standards without certification. But when big players in the food industry have tried to climb on board, game the system and manipulate standards, problems have resulted, even with credible standards like fairtrade and organic. At some point big players will probably undermine these standards. They seem already to be well on the way, but if they succeed their efforts will only have proved that certification standards can never be a substitute for trust, commitment and individual integrity.

The only good news in this story is that it contradicts fundamentally the defeatist arguments of the WWF. Old-fashioned activist strategies, of shaming bad practice, boycotting products and encouraging alternatives, do work. The market opportunity presently being exploited by WWF and company resulted from the success of these strategies, not their failure. Multinational corporations, we should conclude, really do fear activists, non-profits, informed consumers, and small producers, when they all work together.


(1) RSPO standards don’t make much use of maps in their Criterion 7 on “Responsible development of new plantings”. Instead, they rely on “Environmental Impact Assessments” and identifying “High Conservation Value” areas. However, these are every bit as questionable as RTRS maps. According to the UN forum on indigenous peoples, loggers frequently use designations of oil palm plantations as an excuse to log. RSPO, in its guidance notes to Criterion 7.3 under “Responsible development of new plantings”, the standard states: “Development should actively seek to utilise previously cleared and/or degraded land.” It is not a secret therefore, that RSPO plantations offer logging as an excuse to expand.
(2) These standards are also strewn with loopholes. Under RTRS standards, for example, members are allowed to justify why they dont meet a particular standard. Also under RTRS, farming principles called Integrated Crop Management are “voluntarily adopted”. Annex 5 of the standards states that: “The table below presents a non-exhaustive list of measures and practices that can be used”, i.e. use is optional. Under Bonsucro standards, on the other hand, members must meet 80% of them.
(3) The US version of WWF still calls itself the World Wildlife Fund.
(4) The role of the Dutch Government in financing and otherwise supporting sustainable certification is important to this story. On Dec 16th 2011 The Dutch Trade ministry announced that Dutch imports of soybeans would be 100% “Responsible” within four years. Dutch WWF, which is coordinating much of the program, is receiving money from the Dutch Government because Holland is a key player in international agriculture. The Dutch government’s sustainable food strategy notes the following: “Although the Netherlands is a small country, it plays a key role in food production and is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, the largest exporter of seed and propagating material and breeding animals and internationally it is a prominent centre of knowledge.”
A second important Dutch consideration is that Rotterdam is the largest destination for importation of produce and commodity crops into Europe.


Foley, J et al (2011) Solutions for a Cultivated Planet Nature 478: 337–342


Currently there are "25 comments" on this Article:

  1. Klaus says:

    Congratulations, very well done! Please see the 45 minute documentary “The Silence of Pandas – What the WWF Isn’t Saying” on You Tube (first part http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kp25_ujKviY ). More:


    The Silence of Pandas – What the WWF Isn’t Saying


    The WWF is the largest environmental protection organisation in the world. Trust in its green projects is almost boundless. With rousing campaigns, the WWF directly targets the conscience of its donors – everyone should do their part to save endangered species, the climate and the rainforest. The WWF was founded on September 11, 1961. Today it is the most influential lobby for the environment in the world. Thanks largely to its excellent contacts in both the political and industrial spheres. Behind this eco-facade, the film uncovered explosive stories from all around the world. Stories of displaced peoples, cleared rainforests and the huge money-making industry that is the WWF’s green seal of approval. The documentary follows the donations.

    In Indonesia, the WWF is fundraising for the threatened orang-utan of Borneo, but on the ground the filmmaker was unable to find a single WWF orang-utan protection project. On the contrary, it found that the WWF is cooperating with a company that is clearing the last forests at the heart of Borneo in order to create palm oil plantations, while the orang-utans keep dying. The WWF takes money from the company in exchange for its quality seal for “sustainable production”. Around the world, the WWF is entering into partnerships with huge companies in the fields of energy and agribusiness.
    Are WWF deals with industry helping to save the last intact eco-systems in the world or accelerating their destruction?

    The 45 minute documentary “The Silence of the Pandas – What the WWF Isn’t Saying” has been broadcasted on German public TV channel ARD on 28th of June 2011. The English version can be seen on You Tube, divided in three parts:

    First part: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kp25_ujKviY
    Second part: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slyScJrmLn8&feature=related
    Third part: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hT_CUILj3kQ&feature=related

    An interview with the awarded filmmaker Wilfried Huismann (among others three German Grimme awards) can be seen here (in German with English subtitles):

    While indigenous peoples, environmental and human rights groups criticize the WWF already for a long time, the film broad the problems with WWF also to the general public. First in Germany and Switzerland, and now to the rest of the world. Following some of the links to articles in main German and Swiss newspapers and and TV channels (only in German):

    This is what Germanwatch writes about the film and reactions. It includes also a translation of an article from one of Germany’s most read and most serious newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung:

    Here you can read what the WWF says about the film:

    And last but not least, there is a long list of so called “sustainability labels” founded by WWF. These greenwash label initiatives help the industry to produce more harmful products, and to betray the consumers:
    – Palm oil: Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil – RSPO- (Genetic) soy: Roundtable for Responsible Soy – RTRS- (Genetic) cotton: Better Cotton Initiative – BCI – Sugar cane: Better Sugar Initiative – BSI – Industrial fishing: Marine Stewardship Council – MSC – Industrial aquaculture: Aquaculture Stewardship Council – ASC – Industrial logging and tree monoculture plantations: Forest Stewardship Council – FSC etc.

    See also: The Sustainability Lie – A film about the dirty palm oil business

  2. Katherine says:

    Mr. Latham doesn’t give the RTRS standard itself a fair representation- he only described the criteria, and does not drill down to actual indicators, for example, his critique was that the language was vague, “5.9 Appropriate measures are implemented to prevent the drift of agrochemicals to
    neighboring areas” while in fact there are five indicators for that:

    5.9.1 There are documented procedures in place that specify good agricultural practices, including minimization of drift, in applying agrochemicals and these procedures are being implemented.
    5.9.2 Records of weather conditions (wind speed and direction, temperature and relative humidity) during spraying operations are maintained.
    5.9.3 Aerial application of pesticides is carried out in such a way that it does not have an impact on populated areas. All aerial application is preceded by advance notification to residents within 500m of the planned application. Note: ‘Populated areas’ means any occupied house, office or other building.
    5.9.4 There is no aerial application of pesticides in WHO Class Ia, Ib and II within 500m of populated areas or water bodies.
    5.9.5 There is no application of pesticides within 30m of any populated areas or water bodies.

    • jrlatham says:

      This example exemplifies perfectly what the article argues. The RTRS standards don’t call these ‘Indicators’. But you do. What is an indicator? Is it NOT after all a standard?. Second point, why does the text use the present tense? Why not have the standards read, (e.g.5.9.5) Pesticides may not be applied within 30M…..The absence of clarity is mystifying–unless of course the standards are not meant to be clear. And we can drill down yet further. Notification (5.9.3), is referred to under Guidance for National interpretation as “May be, for example, by radio, SMS, or warning rocket.” Which strongly suggests that a warning need not be very effective or very specific with respect to either time or place.

      Drilling down, I found, only makes it worse. As a sage once said: “What the large print offers, the small print taketh away”

      • Sue White says:

        JR- be careful of the word “may”. “May” is ambiguous in legal terms and open to interpretation. If the standards are to be that one shall not do something, they need to read “shall”. In your example may I suggest that the standard read “Pesticides shall not be applied within 30M”.

      • Katherine says:

        The RTRS does call them Indicators, and when being audited, a baseline is established using those indicators. I encourage you to actually read the standard.

        “Monitoring: Where indicators require monitoring to be undertaken, a baseline should be
        established at the time of certification with monitoring and review of trends over time.
        Producers are expected to commit to a process of continual improvement. For group
        certification, monitoring at the group level should be used where appropriate.” (p.i)

        Also, in the Glossary of Terms section (p.18) Indicators are defined as, “The ’operational’ level of a standard expressed in measurable statements which allow assessment of conformance.” To further education yourself, check out the definition of Principle and Criteria, which is where you quit looking. Indeed, I can only surmise willful negligence and libel on your part given how often Indicators are referred to throughout the standard and complimenting documents.

        Poor research like yours compromises legitimate conservation activites worldwide.

        • jrlatham says:

          We don’t normally post comments that rely on insults: ”To further education yourself, check out the definition of Principle and Criteria, which is where you quit looking.”

          or threats: “Indeed, I can only surmise willful negligence and libel on your part….”

          or more insults: “Poor research like yours….”

          instead of arguments,

          but then one of our curious volunteers discovered that Katherine bears a striking resemblance to Kate Anderson of WWF’s RTRS liaison squad http://www.linkedin.com/pub/kate-anderson/12/43/93b and so we thought maybe readers would want to know that such charming comments originated with WWF

          And to address her comments, we suggest readers who want more go to the standards to decide for themselves whether Katherine’s comments about indicators are valid. We don’t see 5.9.1-5.9.5 described as indicators or even that Katherine’s comments address the basic issue at all. They are just kicking up sand.

    • Elisa says:

      Yes, Katherine’s defence of the RTRS standard doesn’t inspire confidence. What are these “documented procedures” that specify good agricultural practice to minimise drift? who designs them? who polices them and how? And what, exactly, are peasant farmers supposed to do once they’ve been “notified” that spraying will take place on a certain day? Go on a day trip to Buenos Aires to shop for designer handbags?

      And what do they do when they return and find that their livestock and food crops have been killed by the herbicide spraying (a common problem in areas growing GM roundup resistant soy, which RTRS endorses as “responsible”).

      As for saying “There is no aerial application of pesticides in WHO Class Ia, Ib and II within 500m of populated areas or water bodies”, well, this doesn’t presumably take in glyphosate, the high toxicity of which has been shown in independent studies but which is still ignored by WHO.

  3. PW says:

    Well done for a well-written article. At least it doesn’t rely on the tired, ‘they sold out’ argument. That being said, I disagree with much of what you say. As stated above — you can’t critique a standard just by looking at the principles — you must also look, in detail, at the criteria and indicators (many of which address the issues you raise). Moreover, you indicate the solution is ‘fairtrade and organic’. Really? Fairtrade is designed for smallholder production (1-2 Ha farms). No one grows soya on such small farms. Everywhere that fairtrade has tried to move beyond smallholders, e.g., plantations, they are severely criticised by locals, NGO’s, and business. Organic? You miss the point. The objective of the RTRS is to protect the Cerrado. If 70% of soy is already GM, how much of the Cerrado will you save by promoting organic. Moreover, I feel it borders on unethical practice for organic promoters to insist that the poorest people on the planet bear an enormous risk of crop failure by ‘going green with organic.’ If you say that, you MUST also stand next to those hundreds of millions of cotton and cane farmers, and teach them pest management techniques, proper irrigation practice, margin management to attract friendly insects, intercropping techniques, etc. Back to soy: let’s not forget the horrors of conventional soy in Brazil before you criticise GM. Thus, the objective of the RTRS is to protect the Cerrado, whichever technology is used (organic, conventional or GM farming). The standard drives improvement everywhere. That sounds a lot better to me than some naive dream that the world is oging to covert to organic.

    • Elisa says:

      PW, You say, “I feel it borders on unethical practice for organic promoters to insist that the poorest people on the planet bear an enormous risk of crop failure by ‘going green with organic.’” But I fear you’re not up to date with the research and reports coming out of India, Africa etc on failed GM crops. It’s clear that poor farmers have risked – and lost – their livelihoods gambling on GM crops that are poorly adapted to local conditions and that rely on huge amounts of inputs like chemicals and water irrigation, which clearly are difficult to access for poor farmers.

      On the contrary, a number of respectable reports from the UN and other bodies confirm that 3rd world farmers who go organic do much better financially than non-organic farmers. there often isn’t even the temporary yield drop that you get in the West when converting from chemical farming to organic, because a lot of soils in the 3rd world have not been degraded by chemical intensive farming and respond immediately to organic inputs.

      So it seems to me that the high-risk option here is GM, and the low- or no-risk option is organic/agroecology.

    • Elisa says:

      PW, Another interesting factor is that I’ve heard there are other sustainability criteria that are stricter than RTRS in protecting vulnerable ecosystems but which are also not ‘naive’ (in your definition) enough to assume that the world is going to turn organic and/or fair trade.
      What about ProTerra? From my reading of the criteria, it:
      *insists on non-GM so the glyphosate spray overload factor and consequent health effects on people is not a problem;
      *completely forbids ‘land conversion’ (doublespeak for chucking peasant farmers off their land);
      *has strict bans on destruction of forest and other ecosystems for soy expansion;
      *allows soy monoculture to proceed as much as WWF could possible want;
      *is founded on the Basel Criteria for protecting the forest, which I think WWF originated?
      What’s not to like (from WWF’s point of view, that is)?

  4. Andrew says:

    And your issue is what exactly??

    These certification schemes may not be perfect – but the alternative is no schemes at all – get agriproducers around the table and talking with NGOs is much better than just shouting on web sites.

    Relaity is that we need large scale food production and fibre and timber…….

    Growing and developing populations will continue to consume more stuff – that’s reality its not a good or a bad thing it just IS.

    The question is how to supply resources cheaply and sustainably – the problem is over consumption – if the west bought less stuff and lived more simply than there would be less pressure on resources.

    Reality is that the west wont consume less.

    Interestingly you do mention the Forestry Managment certification scheme – FSC which was one of the first internationally agreed certification schemes and is supported by social and environmental NGOs and industry.

  5. Herb Wolff says:

    A lesson unlearned:

    “In all institutions where the brisk air of public criticism fails to circulate (as, for example, in scholarly bodies and senates), an innocent corruption grows up, like a mushroom.” Friedrich Nietzsche (1878)

  6. Maya says:

    I loved your article except for one small detail. It’s debatable whether or not certification schemes such as Fair Trade and organic are actually successful. The logic behind many existing certifications for commodities such as coffee is not all that different than the approach of the large conservation NGOs, which you’ll notice if you look into recent changes in TransFair USA. Thanks!

  7. Very thorough piece of work Jonathan, thank you. It’s the kind of critical journalism that has become rare. And what a very unprofessional reaction by Katherine. Are you really Katherine Anderson from WWF US? Please be so fair to make yourself known. To me your reaction sounds like the criticism we’re used to see from Monsanto staff and PR companies, trying to discredit opponents. Don’t link up with this kind of companies, it’s contagious.

    PW, who told you the objective of the RTRS is protecting the Cerrado? As far as I know that’s last years WWF UK PR campaign promote the RTRS. But is RTRS really protecting the Cerrado?

    As far as I can see a large part of the Cerrado is not a native forest and most of the Cerrado is not a high conservation value area , so RTRS criteria do seem to allow soy expansion here. Prove me if I’m wrong PW.

    WWF UK states:
    “Since 2006 we have worked assiduously within the RTRS to ensure the inclusion of robust standards to prevent deforestation related to soya, to respect land tenure claims and to ensure fair working conditions for local people as well as enabling the availability of non-GM soya certified by the RTRS.”

    Well, no success on the non-GM part for that does not exist. And the robust standard on deforestation has been watered down quite a bit. All plantations on land deforested up to may 2009 can produce ‘responsible’ soy. After that date deforestation is still possible in many occasions in the RTRS criteria. Native forest and high conservation value areas (HCVA) are supposed to be protected, but even in these area’s ‘responsible’ deforestation is possible if the local government supplies a ‘land-use map’. (criteria 4.4) Many areas are not native forest or HCVA anyway. The criteria explicitly do not mention Cerrado, which is only partly forested anyway. “Examples of native forests include Amazon, Mata Atlantica, Yungas, Chiquitano, forest areas of NE China.” (RTRS Standard 1.0 article 4.4, guidance part)

    So why claiming the cerrado is being protected by RTRS?

    Page 27 of the WWF report states on the crieria:
    “The soya is not produced from areas converted to cropland from native forests (this would, for example, exclude planting in the Amazon and forested parts of the Cerrado).
    • The soya is not sourced from areas of high conservation value converted to cropland.”

    As we have seen above this is a very wishfull interpretation of the real situation and criteria. On top of that, it is very simple for a land owner to produce ‘responsible’ soy on one part of the land and ‘normal’ soy on another. So why is WWF misleading the public on so called RTRS advantages that do not materialize?

    And PW, you wouldn’t have any links with or be working for WWF, would you?
    Looking forward to hear from you.

  8. Simon says:

    I will be honest and say I did not read the whole article word for word, scanned and then looked through the comments. Global sustainable standards such as RSPO, RTRS are not perfect and many within these organisations will agree. There has been much criticism that the RSPO Principles & Criteria fail to cover such things as GHG emissions via land use change mainly because at the time the data was not there. After the first launch of the P&C’s, this year sees the first major review with a chance for all stakeholders to add their input http://www.rspo.org/content/transforming-market-review-generic-principles-and-criteria-rspo .

    What you can’t do is continue to move the goalpost for growers, unfortunately with any multi stakeholder setup compromise has to happen & some parties I fear will always be left feeling a little ‘hard done by’. There are other standards but if you don’t have buy in from all then how are these standards ever going to bring about change without them being rigorously enforced by government law…..that brings its own issues! Perhaps some from the outside looking in feel the balance is not right within these certification organisation, then again you can only select from members who are willing & able to put the time in via the varies working groups etc. Most professionals who are involved in RSPO/RTRS have other jobs to do and that goes for the large multinationals as well!

    I think it would be more dangerous to simply abandon these standards; it’s a fantastic platform for all stakeholders to engage and go beyond just certification for the large plantations e.g. independent smallholders. Constructive criticism should never be ignored or dismissed but without internal involvement how can you impact change?

    The above is my own view and opinion.

    P.S Please put a star by name and email to show these are compulsory fields (didn’t complete email), very annoying to add comments and then lose them all by hitting submit.

    • jrlatham says:

      Thanks very much for your honest comments. I think readers will be extremely interested to hear the thoughts of an industry insider on this issue.

      I’d like for my part to draw attention to a few of your thoughts which readers may consider offer some clues as to how RTRS/RSPO came to be the way they are.

      First, there will be those who end up, in your words: feeling a little ‘hard done by’? Is this how you think of the peasant farmers and indigenous people displaced by plantations, or the workers whose conditions don’t improve?

      I also think readers will be interested to hear that What you can’t do is continue to move the goalpost for growers, What happened to the “continuous improvement” about which the standards make so much? All-in-all your comments imply that not much change from current standards should be expected. Not easy, I hope you’ll appreciate, for readers to reconcile with the ‘transformation’ rhetoric of Jason Clay of WWF. Are you in fact acknowledging that there will not be a ‘market transformation’ after all?


      Most professionals who are involved in RSPO/RTRS have other jobs to do and that goes for the large multinationals as well! According to Jason Clay this is the remaining hope for the rainforests but apparently it will be lost because the food industry couldnt assign enough middle management time. No wonder you felt the need for an exclamation mark.

      At this end we particularly appreciated your recommendation that “Constructive criticism should never be ignored or dismissed”…you presumably recommend instead it should be “scanned”?

  9. Elisa says:

    Interesting that Simon says you can’t keep moving the goalposts for growers, but RTRS has done just this–in the direction of widening the goalposts from the original Basel Criteria to allow, for example, GM soy to be certified ‘responsible’ and to allow a later cut-off date for land conversion from forest for soy expansion. The aim of all this watering down of the standard appeared to be to make the criteria so loose that corporations like Monsanto felt able to come on board officially. Part of the story is here: http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Round_Table_on_Responsible_Soy

  10. Thanks for the great article.

    The issue is not that the RTRS is ‘not perfect’. Something that helps is spending some time in campesino communities in Argentina or Paraguay, and then read the criteria. It is a laugh if it were not so sad.

    Then, read the first audit reports. Saving the Cerrado?? Please tell me which bit of the Cerrado has been saved, Paul. Grupo Maggi has got thousands of hectares certified on lands that were deforested around 2004. There you go, that’s it. They can quietly go on deforesting for uncertified soy, and if the RTRS comes up with their own land use planning map, they can even deforest some more for certified soy.

    We have spoken with Ahold last week, who are member of the RTRS. While we were able to demonstrate the disadvantages of being a member of the RTRS (greenwashing RR crops, agrofuels etc), they were not able to name one single improvement in soy production on RTRS fiels. Not a single tree has been saved, not a drop of pesticides has been reduced. O yes, some furniture has been donated to a local school and some bread and milk. But this is the regular charity that soy farmers are smart enough to do in the areas that they are spraying, to keep a good relation with local authorities, also without RTRS.

    Kate WWF Anderson, I’m very interested to find what baselines have been established for each of the certified plantations regarding pesticide use (so precise figures for each of the pesticides used), and how this is going to be reduced over time. And what proof is given that these baselines are correct figures. Is anyone testing the certified soy for pesticide residues?

    (In Paraguay, btw, illegal airplanes arrive on illegal landing strips bringing in illegal pesticides from Brazil. But probably not on the one day a year that certifiers are around.. )

    And Paul, there is no reason why fair trade would only be applicable for farmers with 1-2 hectares. But indeed there are very few if any small soy farmers. This is why small farmers never participated in the RTRS, as they are fighting soy monocultures and the RTRS is, as the industry says, a ‘license to expand”. THAT is the problem of the RTRS, and that is why the Dutch NGO support is so scandalous. The development aid money from the Dutch public should have served to support small farmers in developing sustainable agriculture methods and find access to markets for sustainably grown produce.

  11. Simply excellent, thank you. Echoes my own experience with certification schemes

  12. jrlatham says:

    We received the following letter (by email) from Patrick Mallet, Credibility Director of the ISEAL Alliance (http://www.isealalliance.org/)

    With regards to “Way Beyond Greenwashing,” I think that Mr Latham has miscalculated the importance of engagement between NGOs and those companies best placed to have an immediate and transformative impact on sustainability practices. As Credibility Director for the ISEAL Alliance, the global association for social and environmental standards, I would like to clarify some important points about voluntary standards that Mr Latham has failed to capture.

    First, it is unfair to leap to the conclusion that engagement with the big players in industry jeopardises the independence of NGOs and their ability to influence change. In the standards landscape, we now regularly see NGOs and the private sector collaborating on the design of multi-stakeholder standards. This should not be necessarily viewed as an act of “selling out”, as Latham suggests, because for many NGOs such engagement is part of a strategic decision to partner with businesses whose presence in the market means that they can stimulate a drastic shift toward more sustainable practices.

    When assessing the credibility and effectiveness of a standard, as Latham attempts to do, it is important to consider what the developers of standard have agreed to achieve. ISEAL requires member standards to set clear objectives and implement a system for monitoring and improving impacts over time. We have found that baseline standards can potentially be useful in emerging sectors where sustainability is weak. Here they should be viewed as a supply chain tool for improving performance broadly across a sector rather than a finite best practice model.

    It should also be pointed out that some of the comparisons drawn by Latham are simply not realistic. While the uptake of these industry-supported commodity standards might not guarantee the full protection of forested areas, for instance, it is more applicable to look at the probable environmental impacts of industrial agriculture in the absence of such standards rather than a perfect alternative.

    Ultimately, credibility for sustainability standards will be measured by delivery on their intended social and/or environmental impacts. In many sectors, where multinationals control huge supply chains, it serves a standard-setting NGO’s core interest to forge a partnership with those actors most able to influence change.

    • jrlatham says:

      Dear Patrick Mallet

      Thank you for your response. I do not believe there is value in rebutting your letter point-by-point since you offer no actual evidence or examples that contradict the content of the article. I am surprised, however, that given ISEAL’s mission “To create a world where ecological sustainability and social justice are the normal conditions of business.” , and that given the ISEAL website claims “ISEAL members are leaders in their fields, committed to creating solid and credible standard systems”, that ISEAL is not expressing concern or investigating how one of its associate members, WWF, appears to be creating voluntary standards that numerous respected public interest organizations have publicly stated do not meet basic ethical or environmental objectives.
      I would like, however, to address an important point that I did not discuss in my original article. Both your letter, and the standards themselves, claim that unspecified ‘continuous improvements’ will occur and that current standards are in fact a baseline. This idea has been challenged by a defender of RSPO and RTRS who commented that: “What you can’t do is continue to move the goalpost for growers.” Apparently, it would seem not everybody in the certification system is in agreement with ISEAL on the goal of continuous improvement.
      The second serious problem with continuous improvement is that once companies achieve a certification all incentive for improvement vanishes.
      On the contrary, the strongest incentive — when standards are voluntary, vague, lacking external verification, and without penalties for violations, would appear to be for standards to slip backwards, not forwards.

  13. Thomas Watts says:

    “Captured”??? The WWF was BORN corrupt, its founders are profoundly anti-human elitists, who also have a lot of control over industry.

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