Sustainable agricultural standards, hereafter standards, is a broad term encompassing certification schemes, tools, and programmes. The International Trade Centre’s Sustainability Standards Map includes 166 agricultural standards. However, there is a smaller number of prominent standards that are popularly used by major retailers or for particular commodities. Two studies looking at how water is considered in standards selected smaller numbers: Morgan (2017) benchmarks 25 popular use conventional agricultural standards and organic standards, whilst Vos & Boelens (2014) selected eight prominent standards for their analysis.
Standards can play a role in fostering more sustainable water use but currently do not reasonably address the full range of important water issues. Traditionally many standards have restricted water criteria to efficient use and minimising both soil erosion and nutrient runoff (Morgan, 2017). Growing awareness of water risks in agricultural supply chains is one-factor driving companies and standard systems’ attention to water issues.
Standards’ coverage of water issues varies both across and within standards. WWF’s 2017 benchmarking of 25 standards against a Water Stewardship Assessment Framework using four water outcomes (quality, balance, governance and management, and important water-related areas) found that all standards address at least one outcome, but there is a high level of variation. Water quality is the best-covered aspect of water stewardship across the standards, followed by water balance, important water-related areas, and governance and management (Morgan, 2017).
The nature of water risks to agriculture and agricultural supply chains, and water security more broadly, require producers and retailers to look ‘beyond the fence line’ to catchments and other scales. Individual sites’ water use can have cumulative impacts at the catchment or basin level, whilst individual sites’ water use is also at risk from shared water security challenges in a catchment or basin. Standard systems could benefit from combining a focus on water use efficiency, such as irrigation efficiency, at the farm level with a consideration of cumulative water use impacts and basin thresholds (Morgan, 2017).
Water stewardship can allow a deeper understanding of contexts, such as catchment water security challenges and agricultural water risks. Standards can face difficulties dealing with water issues at scales beyond the farm and struggle to account for how water use is geographically and politically embedded in catchments and other scales (Vos & Boelens, 2014). Integrating water stewardship into standards, through add-ons, training, or other mechanisms could overcome these challenges.
Other key findings include:
- The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) Standard: across the small body of evidence identified for this report, the AWS Standard appears to perform well, and AWS is working with other standard systems such as GLOBAL G.A.P to develop training and add-ons to help producers engage with water stewardship. It also works with companies to assess their water risks, and with other partners on pilot projects, for example, strengthening water stewardship through landscape approaches in Indonesia.
- Global production covered by standards varies by product but is growing. For example, only approximately 4.4% of the global sugarcane production area was certified by the Bonsucro standard in 2016 (Smith et al., 2019). In contrast, by 2014, 50% of coffee production was certified (IISD, 2016).
- Smallholders may be excluded from markets: certification and compliance with standards can entail relatively high resource and financial costs for smallholders.
- Critiques of standards and water: these include low levels of democracy and transparency in standard-setting as may be dominated by more powerful stakeholders making it hard for smallholders to participate; and water sustainability standards set by external third parties could have consequences on the ground for indigenous and local communities’ water knowledge, practices and rights.
- Common standard systems: companies using common standard systems such as GLOBAL G.A.P. and others, and mutual recognition between standards, can simplify compliance for farmers and producers if they supply multiple clients. The use of common standard systems can also act as a convenor between different stakeholders (Morgan, 2017).
The evidence base for this request was limited. Whilst water is included in individual standards, there is limited research on the efficacy or impact of standards on water issues. This review identified an extremely small number of studies that either assessed or benchmarked standards’ water-related requirements or the impacts of certification and water requirements on water resources. The literature is a mix of grey literature and academic and is largely gender and disability blind.