Voluntary sustainability standards could significantly reduce detrimental impacts of global agriculture

W. K. Smith, E. Nelson, J. A. Johnson, S. Polasky, J. C. Milder, J. S. Gerber, P. C. West, S. Siebert, K. A. Brauman, K. M. Carlson, M. Arbuthnot, J. P. Rozza, D. N. Pennington

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) are stakeholder-derived principles with measurable and enforceable criteria to promote sustainable production outcomes. While institutional commitments to use VSS to meet sustainable procurement policies have grown rapidly over the past decade, we still have relatively little understanding of the (i) direct environmental benefits of large-scale VSS adoption; (ii) potential perverse indirect impacts of adoption; and (iii) implementation pathways. Here, we illustrate and address these knowledge gaps using an ecosystem service modeling and scenario analysis of Bonsucro, the leading VSS for sugarcane. We find that global compliance with the Bonsucro environmental standards would reduce current sugarcane production area (−24%), net tonnage (−11%), irrigation water use (−65%), nutrient loading (−34%), and greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation (−51%). Under a scenario of doubled global sugarcane production, Bonsucro adoption would further limit water use and greenhouse gas emissions by preventing sugarcane expansion into water-stressed and high-carbon stock ecosystems. This outcome was achieved via expansion largely on existing agricultural lands. However, displacement of other crops could drive detrimental impacts from indirect land use. We find that over half of the potential direct environmental benefits of Bonsucro standards under the doubling scenario could be achieved by targeting adoption in just 10% of global sugarcane production areas. However, designing policy that generates the most environmentally beneficial Bonsucro adoption pathway requires a better understanding of the economic and social costs of VSS adoption. Finally, we suggest research directions to advance sustainable consumption and production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2130-2137
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - Feb 5 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge support for this research from the Luc Hoffmann Institute, The World Wildlife Fund, and The Coca-Cola Company Partnership, University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI/NSF funded DEVIL project (Grant NE/M021327/1), NSF Award 1540195, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch Project HAW01136-H managed by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The funders had no role in study design, data collection, or analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 National Academy of Sciences. All Rights Reserved.


  • Agriculture
  • Ecosystem services
  • Environmental policy
  • Land use change
  • Sustainability standards

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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