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The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) is up and running after five years of development with the first purchases of certified soy being made this month. But, Ben Cooper writes, the fact that RTRS allows GM soy to be certified has affected the programme’s credibility with environmental NGOs.

This month is a significant one for the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), a multi-stakeholder initiative set up in 2006 to define and certify a more sustainable form of soy production. The first purchases of RTRS-certified soy were made earlier this month, while RTRS unveiled an on-pack logo at its 6th International Conference on Responsible Soy in Buenos Aires last week.

However, while the multi-partite programme is backed by WWF, other NGOs, notably environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, have been critical of the scheme, particularly as it allows GM soy to receive certification.

Speaking to just-food, Kirtana Chandrasekaran of Friends of the Earth said the fact that RTRS certifies genetically modified soya as being responsible was a “huge problem” in view of “a massive wealth of evidence showing severe negative impacts on health and environment from GM soya and the pesticide that is used along with it, Glyphosate”.

In addition, Chandrasekaran says the general RTRS certification criteria are “very, very weak” and take no account of indirect land use change, whereby soy expansion may displace other uses, such as ranching, which will then expand into forests. RTRS “is more about greenwashing and it’s really unlikely to help any of the problems associated with soy production”, Chandrasekaran says.

FoE has been running a campaign to persuade people to write to UK retailers urging them not to buy RTRS-certified soy. Other campaign groups to have publicly criticised RTRS include the Global Forest Coalition, Corporate Europe Observatory, Platform Aarde Boer Consument (Platform Earth-Farmer-Consumer) and Food & Water Watch.

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In response to the GM issue, RTRS spokesperson Ben Zeehandelaar points out that impacts related to issues such as deforestation are the same for both GM and non-GM soy. He says some RTRS members are in favour of GM and others are not “but what they agree on is that either production system has a set of sustainability issues or negative impacts that occur for both. So for example if you talk about deforestation it is irrelevant if you talk about GM or non-GM because with both forms of production this can occur. “

As with other multi-stakeholder roundtables, RTRS believes it has to take a pragmatic view, both to find consensus and to begin to tackle the issues in question. As GM currently accounts for around 75% of the 200m tonne global soy production, Zeehandelaar maintains for RTRS to have an impact on the mainstream market it has to include GM. Today it is “impossible” not to include GM, he says. “You would not be talking about a mainstream solution for the soy commodity; you would be talking about a niche.”

Stricter certification systems for soy do exist, such as the Pro Terra scheme, which Chandrasekaran says would represent a more sustainable, GM-free option for European supermarkets to make, if they “were serious about taking a step in the right direction”.

Zeehandelaar points out that the RTRS principles do make it possible to distinguish between GM and non-GM, and customers can opt for RTRS-certified, non-GM soy if they wish.

Notwithstanding the genetically modified elephant in the room, RTRS members were determined to hail this month as a significant moment in the organisation’s history.

Earlier this month, the Initiative for Sustainable Soy (IDS), a coalition of Dutch companies including Ahold and FrieslandCampina, bought the first batch – 85,000 tonnes – of soy produced according to RTRS standards from the Brazilian producer Grupo André Maggi. In May, Maggi had become the first producer to have soy certified by independent auditors.

IDS described the purchase as a “milestone” on the way to building a responsible supply chain for soy. IDS programme director Jan Nicolai said the purchase was a “first step” towards making RTRS certification “the global standard for responsible soy cultivation”.

Meanwhile, Cassio Moreira, coordinator of WWF Brazil’s Agriculture and Environment Program, said this “tangible progress by RTRS producers and buyers” represented the “first steps in building a mainstream market for responsible soy”.

Pier Luigi Sigismondi, chief supply chain officer at Unilever, which has bought certificates covering 5,000 tonnes of sustainable soy oil, said: “Certification is an essential first step towards sustainably grown soy and sourcing sustainably grown soy will help Unilever meet the environmental commitments in its Sustainable Living Plan.” He also struck a pragmatic note. “We can’t change agricultural practices across the world overnight, but by working closely with others – suppliers, farmers, NGOs, and other businesses – we can begin to precipitate change.”

According to Zeehandelaar, the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO), which was initiated two years before RTRS in 2004, has been an important model. The two programmes face some similar challenges and have some notable common members, such as Unilever and WWF, which has allowed for “a lot of cross learning”.

The RSPO has also been accused of being a greenwashing exercise for companies. Indeed, Chandrasekaran describes the RSPO as a “great example of how these things don’t work”. But while such multi-stakeholder programmes, built on consensus and compromise, are inevitably viewed with scepticism by some NGOs, the RTRS has a particular challenge in the GM issue which the RSPO has not had to face.

The RTRS cannot ignore the GM debate but stresses the positive impact the multi-stakeholder collaboration can make and points to its ambitious growth projections. It forecasts certified soy capacity will increase to 500,000 tonnes this year, to 1m tonnes in 2012 and grow further to 3m tonnes in 2013.

Describing this as “a very important moment if not the most important moment in the history of the RTRS”, Zeehandelaar is looking ahead. “As we speak there are several other producers in the process of certifying their fields in Paraguay, others in Brazil, some in Argentina. On the other hand, now it’s available we expect more and more market players, mainly from Europe at this point, to be starting to source this RTRS-certified soy.”

By any measure this is an auspicious moment for RTRS, as the culmination of five years of careful planning and negotiation. In order to make any kind of impact in the mainstream, GM-dominated soy market, RTRS pleads that it has to allow GM soy under its criteria. This may be so, but just as the very dominance of GM creates a reputational issue for the soy industry at large, it also creates a significant headache for the RTRS and one that may be difficult to shake off.