To Certify or to Not Certify? Navigating Food Certifications

a collection of fresh produce with a wooden produce box with an "organic farm" label

Image: Songsak P / courtesy of Modern Farmer

Written by: Brakeley Bryant

August 10, 2023

To certify or to not certify? Many new CEA operators ask themselves this question while planning their new farm and trying to connect with their customer base and/or differentiate themselves from competitors. Certifications, such as USDA organic or Non-GMO project, are official attestations or confirmations of particular qualities of a thing, a person, or an organization. Often, but not always, some kind of external evaluation, instruction, assessment, or audit offers this validation. 

There are many benefits to obtaining a certification for one’s products, services, or organization as a whole. First, it can help build brand awareness and reinforce values. Much like investors and policy stakeholders want to see the ROI or money flows for a business, policy or program, consumers want to be ensured that agricultural products they are buying are “clean”, “fresh” and of “quality”. A 2020 survey by Linkage Research and the Non-GMO Project found that natural shoppers are more likely to buy products when they see these top certifications:

Image: courtesy of the non-GMO project

Second, it can combat greenwashing and support claims of sustainability. A 2019 NSF survey found that 85% of consumers trust independent, third-party certification organizations to verify product claims. Third, it can allow producers to display the added-value of their products or services and, thus, increase their price points. Lastly, it can ensure data transparency and tracking internally, which can aid the efficiency of operations, forming partnerships and obtaining investments. 

Until recently, hydroponic farmers faced difficulties obtaining the organic label. However, over the past few years, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) has permitted certain hydroponic farms to receive organic certification, even though the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended against including hydroponics in the organic program. This disagreement highlights an ongoing dispute in the industry about whether hydroponics can genuinely be considered part of an organic system. As far back as 1995, some advocates for organic production criticized hydroponic systems for lacking organically-derived nutrients

Certification plays a crucial role in promoting sustainability in various sectors by establishing unified standards and providing independent verification. It offers valuable insights into complex supply chains and fosters transparency, making it a scalable and impactful system. The collaborative nature of certification, involving farmers, companies, markets, and civil society, supports sustainable transformation. Additionally, certification can ensure the long-term viability of farming and agriculture in the face of climate change and socio-economic challenges.

Certifications and the SDGs

Image: SCS Services

By adhering to certifications like Rainforest Alliance, Food Alliance, USDA Organic, and others, CEA facilities demonstrate their commitment to responsible land use, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable production methods, contributing to SDG 15 - Life on Land and SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production. Through these certifications, consumers gain greater transparency about the origin of their food, empowering them to make informed and sustainable choices, supporting SDG 2 - Zero Hunger. As CEA operators focus on inclusive and ethical labor practices, certifications like Fair Trade USA promote decent work and economic growth, aligning with SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Certification also plays a pivotal role in driving sustainable urban development and construction within the CEA sector. Building certification schemes, like LEED, Energy Star, BREEAM, and the Living Building Challenge, assess CEA facilities based on their energy efficiency, water usage, materials sourcing, indoor air quality, and overall environmental impact. By adhering to these sustainable building standards, CEA operators contribute to SDG 11, which aims to create sustainable cities and communities. Green CEA facilities not only reduce resource consumption but also improve crop quality and productivity, benefiting both consumers and the environment. However, it is essential to address the challenges of affordability and accessibility to ensure that sustainable CEA practices benefit all communities and not just those with greater financial resources.

Furthermore, business certification schemes, such as B Corp and SQF Certification, encourage responsible and ethical practices within the CEA industry. B Corp certification assesses CEA companies' social and environmental performance, emphasizing their commitment to purpose beyond profit. This aligns with SDGs 8 and 12, promoting inclusive economic growth and responsible consumption and production. SQF Certification ensures that CEA suppliers adhere to stringent safety and quality standards, advancing SDG 2 - Zero Hunger. Business certifications empower consumers to support CEA companies that prioritize sustainability, ethical supply chains, and positive social impact. However, genuine transformation within the CEA industry requires businesses to integrate sustainability into their core strategies and continuously improve their practices.

Limitations of Certifications

Certifications offer valuable benefits in promoting sustainability and responsible practices. However, they also come with certain limitations that businesses should be mindful of. One drawback is the potential for certification fatigue, as the increasing number of certifications available can make it challenging for businesses to navigate and select the most suitable ones for their operations. Additionally, obtaining and maintaining certifications can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, which might pose challenges for smaller CEA facilities.

Furthermore, a certification specifically for indoor farms does not exist. In 2016, Agritecture Founder & CEO Henry Gordon-Smith worked in his capacity at the time as Vice Chair of the Association of Vertical Farming with a group of Columbia students to build a case for a vertical farming certification scheme. However, nothing materialized beyond the research, and the industry is still without a sustainability certification scheme. 

To ensure the effectiveness of certifications, businesses must align them with their core values and those of their target customers. Merely obtaining certifications without fully integrating sustainable practices into their operations could lead to greenwashing concerns and erode consumer trust. While certifications are valuable tools, they should be viewed as part of a broader sustainability strategy, and businesses should avoid relying solely on certifications to create widespread transformative change. Instead, they should weave certifications into their brand's narrative, emphasizing how these certifications reflect their values and align with their larger sustainability initiatives. By incorporating certifications effectively and transparently, CEA facilities can leverage them to drive positive change and contribute meaningfully to a more sustainable and trusted food system.


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