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Reducing the EU footprint in agro commodity trade: five mandatory minimum criteria

1 April 2020

The European Union is embarking on an ambitious process towards policy and regulation to bring down its footprint, among others within agro commodity trade. The consumption of agro commodities such as soy, palm oil and cacao contributes to the EU’s large impact on climate and biodiversity, especially through deforestation and conversion of ecosystems. Which criteria should the EU include across its policies and laws to truly reduce its footprint?

“Thanks to voluntary initiatives in palm oil, soy and cacao, a percentage of EU trade has become more responsible¹,” says Heleen van den Hombergh, Senior Expert Agro Commodities at IUCN NL. “But without sustainability requirements to the total volume of all agro commodities placed on the EU market, the uptake of responsibly produced commodities remains too low, and we can expect too little effect on-the-ground.”

Clear and coherent

A set of mandatory minimum criteria for agro commodities across EU policy and legislative efforts will help scale up sustainability and create coherent and clear messages to suppliers: from farmers to traders, feed and food producers, brands and retailers.

“Also in landscape-wide or jurisdictional approaches to responsible agro commodities in producing countries, minimum criteria can be used as guidance for target setting and agreements,” says Van den Hombergh. “In this way, they will have a positive impact on forest and ecosystem conservation not only through the EU market, but also within domestic markets or China.” The set of criteria should address both environmental and social concerns.

Five proposed mandatory criteria

Learning from currently voluntary commodity standards and frameworks for good business conduct, IUCN NL proposes five minimum criteria to be adopted as mandatory across EU policy and regulation. 

1. Legality

Verified legal compliance in the country of origin should be the very first requirement for products placed on the EU market, but this is mostly not enough to combat deforestation and climate change or rights infringements within EU value chains. Therefore four other criteria should be considered key:

2. General good business practice.

As in-country laws differ widely, following the international guidelines for responsible business practice, including the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the OECD/FAO Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), should be made mandatory. However, these guidelines remain quite general on environmental criteria. Therefore an explicit criterion 3 is crucial for the EU to attain its objectives:

3. Deforestation-free and conversion-free production.

This criterion, including conservation of forests, native grasslands, wetlands, peat lands and other natural ecosystems, is necessary to combat the climate and biodiversity impact of EU consumption. Conservation efforts should prioritize existing areas crucial for their High Conservation and/or High Carbon Stock Values.

4. Respect for rights.

This requires going beyond national laws and the general human and labor rights criteria formulated in the OECD Guidelines, including respect for human rights, labor rights, and formal & customary land rights, in line with UNGPs, the Sustainable Development Goals framework and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

5. Climate- and biodiversity-smart agricultural practices.

In addition to criterion 3, we need specific measures to avoid or restore biodiversity loss and climate impact by agro commodities. Such measures include responsible use of chemicals and sustainable soil and water management.

This way, the current ambitious wave of EU policy and legislation can have a lasting positive effect on agro commodity trade.

Read more in our discussion paper

¹ See: The European Soy Monitor (2019) and The urgency of action to tackle tropical deforestation (2020)

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More articles by: Heleen van den Hombergh