Research Brief

Research Brief: Targeted sustainability standards for agriculture hold promise for global environmental benefits

Couple shopping in packaged grocery aisle.

New research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides a first-ever global assessment of the ways in which sustainability standards led by non-profit, private and public organizations and driven by consumer and buyer demand—and voluntarily adopted by agricultural producers—can contribute to extensive environmental benefits, from reduced greenhouse gas emissions to decreased water use.

In collaboration with the Natural Capital Project, The Coca-Cola Company and other partners, a University of Minnesota-led research team evaluated the large-scale benefits of global implementation of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) for helping mitigate greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, water use and water pollution and habitat loss associated with agriculture production. These stakeholder derived principles include measurable criteria to promote sustainable production outcomes. Increasing adoption of these voluntary measures has sparked investigation into their environmental benefits, potential adverse effects and pathways to their successful implementation.

The researchers used Bonsucro, an international network of sugarcane professionals committed to a well-established set of VSS, as a case study. They modeled the impacts of adopting the Bonsucro standard across the sugarcane sector—either selectively or universally and under current and future crop expansion—and found a large potential for environmental and production efficiency benefits in either scenario.

Findings from this study suggests universal adoption of VSS would dramatically increase production tonnage in some parts of the world, while reducing:

  • total geographic-production area by 24 percent;
  • water use by 65 percent;
  • nutrient loading by 34 percent;
  • greenhouse gas emissions by 51 percent.

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. A key finding is that a strategy of targeting the 10 percent of land needed to maximize direct environmental benefits could still achieve more than half of the benefits of the universal-adoption future-doubling scenario.

“This type of analysis is sorely needed to advance sustainable consumption and production outcomes toward achieving sustainable development goals,” said Derric Pennington, a resident fellow of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and an adjunct assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “We showcase the potential global environmental benefits of sustainability standards and certification schemes while remaining realistic and comprehensive.”

Contributors to the study say that further research must also consider the effects of anthropogenic climate change on the success of these voluntarily imposed regulations.

“This is a critical next step,” said lead author William Smith from the University of Arizona. “We know anthropogenic climate change is a major threat to sustainable development. Ideally, VSS should also increase resilience to such threats.”


About the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment  
The Institute on the Environment supports research across the disciplines, develops the next generation of global leaders, and builds transformative partnerships – in service of solving our world's greatest challenges. IonE’s mission is to lead the way to a future in which people and planet prosper together. Learn more at


Media Contacts

Main Line

University Public Relations
(612) 624-5551