Ten certification agencies that are increasing sustainability

Certification agencies can have a major impact on the food system. These ten agencies are helping make it more sustainable. 

Clarke Canfield/AP/File
Hannaford stores feature the company's Guiding Stars rating system, as shown on price tags in the cereal aisle at a South Portland, Maine, store on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013. Food labels can be confusing even for well-informed consumers.

Even for well-informed consumers who already can identify and evaluate products based on words such as organic or Fair Trade, there’s still much more to know about labeling language and logos. The following 10 organizations tackle a variety of themes, from animal welfare to soil vitality to uniting organic verification systems. Each certification is voluntary, meaning that companies offer themselves up to third-party audits and often pay a fee to do so. Read on to understand what different certifications reveal about methods of production, distribution, and consumption.

1. Animal Welfare Approved
Founded in 2006, the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program respects each farmer’s ability to design their management practices with the basic goal of allowing animals to behave naturally. The organization audits, certifies, and supports independent family farms raising animals ranging from beef and dairy cattle to ducks and turkeys. A full list of standards for each species includes provisions for weaning young animals from their mothers and specific measurements for space allowances. The organization also periodically publishes reports and technical advice fact sheets on animal welfare research.

2. Global Animal Partnership
In place throughout Whole Foods Market stores, this nonprofit alliance’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program currently extends to beef cattlebroiler chickenspigs, andturkeys (the organization recently closed a public comment series for pilot standards on meat sheep, goats, and bison). All farmers must be higher than Step 1 (no cages, crates, or crowding) to enter the program. To reach Steps 2 through 5, farmers must ensure animals have access to an enriched environment, the outdoors, or pasture. Each species-specific set of standards outlines criteria for feed and water usage, medication use, and breeding. With over 290 million animals raised annually on 2,700 certified farms and ranches since 2008, GAP is making continuous improvements in animal agriculture.

3. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
This San Francisco Bay Area-based program helps consumers and businesses make healthy choices for healthy oceans. Through a colored traffic light system, consumers can learn about seafood and sushi “best choices,” “good alternatives,” and products to “avoid.” Along with an online A-Z guide, there are downloadable consumer guides for each state as well as a mobile app. Every six months, Seafood Watch scientists review journal articles, government reports, and contact fishery experts to update these guides.

4. Certified Naturally Grown
Based on the Participatory Guarantee System, Certified Naturally Grown seeks to minimize paperwork and use a peer-inspection process for apiaries, produce, and livestock. The organization publishes a comprehensive guide for required, recommended, permitted, and prohibited substances used in the treatment of specific pests and diseases. With honeybees dying from acute pesticide usage, the Basic Management and Honey Standards for practices such as hive positioning and moving colonies are helping to promote sustainable beekeeping. Apart from publishing lists of approved and banned substances, CNG also publishes a Handbook for Natural Beekeepers Guide to help producers understand and follow guidelines.

5. The Non-GMO Project
Committed to providing consumers with the knowledge to make informed decisions about consuming genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the retailer founded nonprofit Non-GMO Project currently has 27,000 verified products from 1,500 brands on the market in North America. While products with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic Label must be GMO-free, the Non-GMO Project provides ongoing testing of ingredients at critical contamination points and also verifies conventional foods. Consumers can find products ranging from candy bars to baby food atparticipating retailers and through the shopping guide app.

6. Soil Association
Founded in 1946 by a group of scientists, farmers, and nutritionists who identified a connection between farming practices and health, the Soil Association has over 150 staff based in the United Kingdom. Through its trading subsidiary, Soil Association Certification, the label now on over 70 percent of organic products in the U.K. certifies farming, production of food and feed, processing, and packing and distribution. Using the European Union organic regulations as a baseline, Soil Association Certification goes a step further for organic food and drink standards to encompass agricultural, environmental, and social principles ranging from maintaining the long-term fertility of soils to fostering biodiversity.

7. Good Food Awards
Founded by former Director of Communication for Slow Food International Sarah Weiner, the San Francisco-based nonprofit recognizes craft food and drink producers for excellence in taste and sustainability. Criteria vary across the 13 categories from beer toconfections, but generally call for products made without the use of synthetic inputs or genetically modified organisms and with good animal husbandry practices. Companies with products outside of these categories can also apply to join the Good Food Merchants Guild, a diverse group of industry leaders honoring American craft food traditions and practicing social responsibility.

8. Rainforest Alliance
By certifying coffee, tea, fruit, and chocolate, the Rainforest Alliance works to promote biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods for farmers in some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems. The rigorous environmental, social and economic criteriadeveloped with partner Sustainable Agriculture Network recognize farms taking steps to maintain or increase tree cover, conserve soil quality, protect wildlife, and respect workers and their families.

9. Demeter
In 1924, philosopher Rudolf Steiner delivered a series of lectures to farmers in Austria to set the foundation for biodynamic agriculture. With organic principles as the baseline for engagement, this holistic approach to agriculture also considers cosmic rhythms.Products marked with the Demeter symbol have been produced without copper treatments and with at least one year of preparations made from healing plants, minerals, and cow manure to enhance soil life. Standards for productionprocessing,labeling, and beekeeping are available online and apply to products from Hungary to the Dominican Republic, ranging from mushrooms to goats.

10. International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOAM)
As an organization composed of 800 affiliates in more than 100 countries, IFOAM seeks to unite the organic movement worldwide. The IFOAM Organic Guarantee Systemimproves transparency regarding different domestic organic standards while also acknowledging a need for diversity and local adaptation. It is based on a Family of Standards, the only tool set up to enable multilateral equivalence between technical regulations and organic certification agencies across continents, such as Biocert India and Argencert.

This article first appeared at Food Tank.

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