With the current world population at 7 billion, it is of paramount importance that efforts geared toward satisfying the needs of society for sustainable food quality, safety and security should be promoted. Sustainable agriculture is the way to go if we are to produce sufficient food to match the growing population and, at the same time, mitigate the effects of climate change.

Rainforest Alliance (RA) certification is one of the certifications that promote sustainable agriculture practices. The RA works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use and business practices, and consumer behavior. I have been involved with RA certification through my work with a tea-growing and export company in Uganda (East Africa). The company is composed of six tea estates (with five processing factories) spread along the legendary Rwenzori mountain ranges. Having installed quality and food safety management systems, we decided to pursue RA certification to improve overall sustainability in the tea estates. We have been energized by a recent report released by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture entitled “Future Climate Scenarios for Uganda’s Tea Growing Areas,” which revealed that climatic suitability of much of Uganda’s tea-growing areas would decline significantly by 2050. This report was a wake-up call for everyone involved in Uganda’s tea sector.

RA certification hinges on the Sustainable Agriculture Network Standard represented by the following 10 principles:

1. Management System: Social and environmental management systems are in place so that auditors can confirm that estates are operated in compliance with the Sustainable Agriculture Network Standard and national legislations.

2. Ecosystem Conservation: We conserve existing ecosystems and aid in the ecological restoration of critical areas. We protect waterways and wetlands from erosion and contamination, prohibit logging and other deforestation, maintain vegetation barriers and prevent negative impacts on natural areas outside estates.

3. Wildlife Protection: Our estates serve as refuges for wildlife. We also educate our workers and neighboring communities about the importance of wildlife protection.

4. Water Conservation: We keep track of water sources and consumption. We hold proper permits for water use; we treat wastewater and monitor water quality.

5. Working Conditions: The company strives to ensure good working conditions for all employees, as defined by such international bodies as the International Labour Organization. Forced and child labor and all forms of discrimination and abuse are prohibited, and workers are aware of their rights through their membership in labor unions.

6. Occupational Health: We have occupational health and safety programs to reduce the risk of accidents. Workers receive safety training, and the company provides necessary protective gear and ensures that farm and factory infrastructure and equipment are in good condition and pose no danger to human health.

7. Community Relations: The company strives to be a good neighbor and inform surrounding communities and local interest groups about its activities.

8. Integrated Crop Management: There is no use of banned agrochemicals on estates. The company uses the safest products available and uses every possible safeguard to protect human health and the environment.

9. Soil Conservation: The company uses measures aimed at long-term soil improvements through prevention of erosion and fertilization based on crop requirements and soil characteristics.

10. Integrated Waste Management: Each estate has an integrated waste management program in place aimed at managing wastes through recycling, reducing consumption and reuse. Waste is segregated, treated and disposed of in ways that minimize environmental and health impacts. Workers are educated about properly managing waste on the estates and in their communities.

We maintain patches of natural forests within the tea estates. This has helped us lower costs because we now rely more on natural ecosystem processes for crop care. We have also identified forest patches as one way to conserve biodiversity.

With an internal control system as part of our management system, documentation is helping us predict long-term tea production patterns. International tea buyers are also showing a preference for RA-certified teas, one of them being Lipton (Unilever), which is committed to sourcing all of their tea from RA-certified estates by 2015.

With our RA certification in addition to quality and food safety management system certifications, we are doing our part in making sure that consumers of our tea worldwide enjoy a safe cup of tea without compromising the needs of future generations.

Through RA certification, we have adopted the eleventh commandment of Walter Lowdermilk, one of the pioneers of resource conservation:

“Thou shalt inherit the holy earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation.

Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation and protect hills from overgrazing by the herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever.

If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground of wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth.” Walter Lowdermilk, Jerusalem, 1939

P3FC Editorial Note: We urge other food and beverage companies to consider meeting the laudable goals of the Rainforest Alliance, in which economic viability is coupled to environmental protection and social equity.

Denis Twinamatsiko, B.Sc., is a standards coordinator. He holds a B.Sc. (Honors) in food science & technology from Makerere University in Kampala.