Investing in sustainable agriculture

Businesses, governments, and people from all walks of life are increasingly recognizing sustainable and responsible business practices as crucial to confronting some of the world’s most pressing economic, social, and environmental challenges. More so now than ever, consumers insist on knowing that they’re buying and eating sustainably grown food. The problem is that the agriculture sector has lacked a definitive standard for defining and measuring adherence to sustainable farming practices that can be applied across all crop types and geographies. To address that critical gap, we worked collaboratively with industry peers and nonprofit organizations to develop a new performance-based, industrywide sustainability standard for agriculture. Leading Harvest is the newly formed, nonprofit organization that will govern and maintain the Farmland Management Standard.

Sustainability goals are here to stay

Led by a vocal, rising generation, more people around the world are beginning to step up and do the right thing when it comes to sustainability—the implementation of practices now that will help future generations to attend to their own needs later.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals, representing a “shared plan to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030.” Clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, and climate action are just a few of the items on this bold, ambitious, and integrated agenda of sustainability goals, adopted by 193 countries.¹

Choreographed, coordinated international policy development isn’t the only driver of forward momentum in the field. The call for sustainability goals also stems from more spontaneous, grassroots sources. Greta Thunberg, for example, a young Swedish climate activist “began a global movement by skipping school” in August 2018; in the months that followed, her local demonstrations garnered global attention, and Time magazine recognized her as its 2019 Person of the Year.²

Deriving its forward momentum from the top down and the bottom up, it seems sustainability has reached a tipping point. We believe the practice of setting, implementing, and achieving sustainability goals has become a human imperative that’s likely to endure.

People are demanding sustainably grown food

From a finite supply of arable land, the planet needs to nourish and sustain a global population that’s already grown to 7.8 billion, and is expected to continue to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050.³ Recognizing the challenge to feed our increasing population, there’s been growing demand for assurance around responsible environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices, and it starts with the consumer.

Consumers are now more interested in knowing where their food comes from, how it’s produced, and whether it’s fundamentally safe. We expect the trend toward sustainably grown and supplied food to accelerate as a maturing cohort of millennials continues to distinguish itself from prior generations by embracing values-based consumption; in fact, three out of four millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable offerings.⁴

We expect the trend toward sustainably grown and supplied food to accelerate … in fact, three out of four millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable offerings.

Farmers and participants all along the food supply chain have taken note, but the lack of a universal standard has been problematic when attempting to provide the assurances that consumers want. As a global producer of sustainable food and fiber for the benefit of our clients and communities, one of our goals was to have access to a standard that offered the public some comfort in knowing which food products were being produced in a safe, sustainable, and certifiable manner.

Our agriculture sustainability journey has roots in the forest sector

To that end, we’ve worked to expand the reach of sustainability practices established in our timberland business by applying that same thinking to our agriculture business. As a timberland and farmland investment manager, we have insight into market trends and gaps in both sectors. We were an early mover in third-party certification in our timberland investments, and we’ve now managed third-party certified forests for over two decades.⁵ In 1999, the first of our managed timber properties was certified to the Forest Stewardship Council standard, and by 2002, all of our North American timber holdings were certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) standard. Today we’re the world’s largest timberland manager for institutional investors, and we manage 100% of our forests globally in accordance with third-party sustainability standards.

We champion stewardship, sustainability, and responsible investing, and this timeline shows our history of sustainability, dating back to 1999, when the first of our managed timber properties was certified to the Forest Stewardship Council standard.

In 2014, we began to mirror, adapt, and extend the sustainability protocols internalized in our timberland properties to our farmlands by establishing a set of stewardship principles. Our years of experience with these principles guided our contributions to the working group that would come to develop the Sustainable Agriculture Standard. Similar to forest certification programs, the new Leading Harvest Farmland Management Standard is designed to meet the ESG interests of investors, consumers, and the supply chain.

The Sustainable Agriculture Working Group got it done together

Just as we worked together with a broad coalition to address sustainability challenges in the timber sector, we partnered with colleagues across the agriculture sector to forge a shared standard for farmland management. In 2017, we helped convene the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, which consisted of two leading environmental nonprofit organizations—the Conservation Fund and Manomet—and eight professional owner and management entities representing roughly 1.5 million farmland acres across twenty-two U.S. states and an additional 2.0 million acres in seven other countries.

At the time, the agriculture sector lacked a sustainability standard that could work across different crop types, production systems, scales, and geographies. However, we were confident that the working group’s collective scale could lead the agriculture sector toward greater adoption of sustainable farming by developing and launching a new standard.

Using the SFI blueprint to create a similar standard for farmland, the working group collected input from a broad representation of interested parties—some four-dozen different sources, including farmers, environmental leaders, academics, government agencies, and investment managers.

The resulting standard is performance based and designed to help land managers achieve sustainability through continuous improvement on 13 specific operational objectives, collectively rigorous and complete, yet practical and obtainable.

13 principles of the Leading Harvest Farmland Management Standard

1 Sustainable agriculture
2 Soil health and conservation
3 Protection of water resources
4 Protection of crops
5 Energy use, air quality, and climate change
6 Waste and material management
7 Conservation of biodiversity
8 Protection of special sites
9 Local communities
10 Employees and farm labor
11 Legal and regulatory compliance
12 Management review and continual improvement
13 Tenant-operated operations

Source:, 2020.

We believe Leading Harvest certification will eventually become an important part of the social license required by asset managers operating in farmland.

The standard is designed as a shared responsibility for sustainable practices throughout all areas of food production and distribution, applying to farmers, landowners, the supply chain, and consumers alike. We believe Leading Harvest certification will eventually become an important part of the social license required by asset managers operating in farmland. It's not about gaining a commercial advantage, it's about putting forth a standard that has the ability to scale up and deliver the outcomes that stakeholders of the global food system are seeking. Confirming that our own practices meet this new standard is the next logical step in our ongoing commitment to ESG integration for our clients and the communities in which we operate.

Our aspirations are global

We’ve always believed that good stewardship is good business, and adopting third-party certification as a proof point of sustainable agriculture will affirm that we’re safeguarding our environment and the communities we touch.

While Leading Harvest's efforts have been dedicated to the agriculture sector in the United States, food security is a global issue. To that end, we’re supportive of engaging in parallel discussion in other countries in which we operate, such as Australia and Canada. We’re confident that such conversation will yield comparable advances in sustainable agriculture. Ultimately, we’d like to see certification systems such as these go global, much as they have in the forest sector.

We think we can continue to be a part of the global dialogue on sustainability, to help inspire those who produce and consume crops grown on farms around the globe. Big actions by a few players won’t get the job done; it’ll take a lot of small actions by all of us to be able to achieve globally sustainable agricultural practices. We believe this is an important area of focus, especially for investors who want to align their portfolios with ESG goals. Clients, employees, and communities can count on us to continue to do our part.





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Brian J. Kernohan

Brian J. Kernohan, 

Chief Sustainability Officer, Private Markets

Manulife Investment Management

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