Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that leads global efforts to defeat hunger. FAO’s goal is to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives.

For decades, FAO has developed knowledge and provided technical support to countries that have asked for quality standards, including Voluntary Sustainability Standards. This includes helping public and private stakeholders to define and implement national food standards that support public goals.

FAO and Voluntary Sustainability Standards

As consumer demand for sustainable food and agricultural products and processes has grown, so have the voluntary standards, certifications, labels and regulations that govern this. These regulations cover environmental protection, social welfare and fairness, traditions and geographical origin, and include food safety and nutrition.

The development of these standards has strongly impacted on internal and international markets because they can boost rural development by providing better incomes and conserving local resources.

The various degrees of difficulty with which developing countries have met the proliferation of schemes for such products has been tackled by FAO with information and technical support for many years.

FAO also supports countries and enterprises in setting up and implementing voluntary standards and schemes that takes into account their needs and constraints as well as the international regulatory framework and standards.

In particular, FAO is running a programme to assist member countries in establishing a supportive policy framework and product specifications for the implementation of specific voluntary quality standards and schemes that will contribute to rural development and food security.


Sustainability certification for fisheries is now a market reality, but a proliferation of certification schemes can generate confusion among producers, retailers, and consumers in recognizing credible arrangements, usually associated with higher costs. In 2013, a global platform was launched to promote improvement in seafood certification schemes, the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI), which recognized the individual nature of each scheme while ensuring confidence in the supply and promotion of certified seafood.

GSSI a partnership of

  • seafood companies
  • non-governmental organizations
  • governmental and intergovernmental experts (including FAO)

The platform uses the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF), the FAO Guidelines for Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine and Inland Capture Fisheries and the FAO Technical Guidelines for Aquaculture Certification as references to a Global Benchmark Tool for seafood certification schemes.

With the growing, but still small, participation of developing countries, GSSI has become a purchasing requirement by many major retailers and brand-owners.

In 2017, GSSI was a recognized sustainable tool in the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration, launched during the Oceans Conference in New York, and in the sourcing guidelines for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.

The use of FAO instruments in this Benchmark Tool helps to reduce the risk of a voluntary certification scheme becoming a trade barrier. One critical challenge for the system of voluntary certification, including the GSSI platform, is to be more inclusive, incorporating developing countries and small-scale and artisanal fishers.

Voluntary forest certification standards have been used since the 1990s, and as of 2017 more than 450 million hectares of forests were certified under just two globally recognized schemes:

  • Forest Stewardship Council
  • Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)

These schemes have similarly faced criticism for being beyond the reach of smallholders, which is why they have made efforts to develop smallholder-friendly mechanisms such as grouped certification.

Indonesia’s Ecolabeling Institute (LEI), for example, has a sustainable community-based forest management standard that to data has certified nearly 37,000 of community-managed forests.

The Indonesia Forest Certification Cooperation (IFCC) is working together with PEFC to develop a community forestry grouped standard, which would potentially further the accessibility of sustainability certification for the 500,000 hectares of community forests newly registered under the current administration.

Related Publications

Workshop proceedings Voluntary Standards for Sustainable Food Systems: Challenges and Opportunities.


Literature review on Impact of international voluntary standards on smallholder market participation in developing countries.


Policy brief on Voluntary sustainability standards in agriculture, fisheries and forestry trade