What Makes a Sustainable Farm

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Rainforest Alliance certified farms undergo an evaluation of ten rigorous factors during an audit period. Photo: jaguardelplatanar

That cup of coffee you had this morning may have had that familiar bittersweet taste, but do you know what went into getting those ground beans to your mug?

You can’t taste or smell sustainable farming, but it has an impact on your daily life – from the products you consume to the buildings you live in. In fact, agriculture – farming and grazing – already uses 38 percent of the Earth’s lands, and industrial agriculture is a leading polluter and a rapacious user of water.

We wanted to know what makes a farm sustainable, and if it’s worth the extra money you spend to ensure its legitimacy.

To get an accurate picture of what this industry is all about, we sat down with Abby Ray, communications coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works with farmers to ensure the farms is protecting wildlife, wild lands, workers’ rights and local communities.

While the following ten factors were created by the Rainforest Alliance and are standard managements used by the organization, they cover a wide range of farming aspects that can be applied throughout farms worldwide.

“In our work, many of the farms implementing these initiatives are small, family-run coffee, or cocoa farms,” Ray explains. “For example, but they are universal principles that can be applied to farms everywhere – from large tea plantations to backyard vegetable gardens.”

1. Ecosystem conservation

Less water pollution as all sources of contamination (pesticides and fertilizers, sediment, wastewaters, garbage, fuels, etc.) are controlled. Carbon capture, crops pollination, pest control, biodiversity and soil and water conservation are just some of the services provided by natural ecosystems on farms.

2. Soil management

Less soil erosion as farms implement soil conservation practices such as planting on contours and maintaining ground cover. Certified farms only establish new production areas on land that is suitable for agriculture and the new crops, and never by cutting forests.

3. Healthy and safety

Reduced threats to the environment and human health as the most dangerous pesticides are prohibited, all agrochemical use is strictly regulated, farmers must use mechanical and biological pest controls where possible and strive to reduce both the toxicity and quantity of chemicals used.

4. Wildlife protection

Wildlife habitat is protected as deforestation is stopped, the banks of rivers are protected with buffer zones, critical ecosystems such as wetlands are protected and forest patches on farms are preserved.

5. Composting and recycling

Less waste as farm by-products such as banana stems, coffee pulp, orange peels and un-marketable foliage are composted and returned to the fields as natural fertilizer. Other wastes, such as plastics, glass and metals are recycled where possible.

6. Water conservation

Less water used as water conservation measures are applied in washing and packing stations, housing areas and irrigation.

7. Crop management

More efficient farm management as the certification program helps farmers organize, plan, schedule improvements, implement better practices, identify problems and monitor progress.

8. Fair treatment of workers

Improved conditions for farm workers – who are getting fair wages, decent housing, clean drinking water, sanitary facilities and a safe and wholesome work area. Workers and their families have access to schools, health care, transportation and training. This is especially crucial for farmers in developing countries.

9. Social and environmental management

Improved profitability and competitiveness for farmers who have increased production, improved quality, reduced worker complaints and increased worker efficiency. The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal of approval gives the farmers more leverage at the time of sale, product differentiation, premium prices and improved access to credit.

10. Community impact

Certified farms are good neighbors. They relate in positive ways with neighbors, surrounding communities and local interest groups. These farms contribute to local economic development through training and employment and try to prevent negative impacts on the areas, activities or services that are important for local populations.

What to look for when you shop

With nearly 400 “green label” certifications worldwide, it can be difficult to understand what each one means and distinguish between legitimate seals of approval and marketing schemes.

For coffee, cocoa, chocolate, tea, nuts, fruits, paper, furniture and building materials, look for the Rainforest Alliance seal, which is denoted with a green frog.

The most well-known organic label is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a part of the National Organic Program (NOP), they “develop, implement, and administer national production, handling and labeling standards for organic agricultural products.” The label may be used on raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic ingredients.

Remember that a product’s impact assessment doesn’t stop adding up when it leaves the farm. Packaging is another important factor to consider before tossing it in the shopping cart.

Look for the universal recycling symbol – three chasing arrows symbolize “closing the loop” by recycling and buying recycled products. This makes it important to understand your curbside program or local recycling facilities. Once you have a handle on what is accepted, you can make better purchasing decisions.

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