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There have been several historical developments that have had an impact on the development of today's range of voluntary social and environmental standards and related certification and labelling programmes in agriculture. This chapter briefly mentions some of those developments to help gain a better understanding of the current situation.


Evidence from the earliest historical written records indicates that governing authorities were early concerned with codifying rules. The rules were mainly aimed at protecting consumers from dishonest practices in the sale of food. Assyrian tablets described the method to be used in determining the correct weights and measures for food grains, and Egyptian scrolls prescribed the labelling to be applied to certain foods. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the first general food laws adopted and basic food control systems put in place to monitor compliance. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1897 and 1911, a collection of standards and product descriptions for a wide variety of foods was developed as the Codex Alimentarius Austriacus. The present day Codex Alimentarius draws its name from the Austrian code. In the early 1900s, food trade associations made the first attempts to facilitate world trade through the use of harmonized standards.

In the 1950s, as more and more information about food and related matters became available, there was greater apprehension on the part of consumers. Whereas, previously, consumers' concerns had extended only as far as the "visibles" - underweight contents, size variations, misleading labelling and poor quality - they now embraced a fear of the "invisibles" such as micro-organisms, pesticide residues, environmental contaminants and food additives, as well as a broader interest into the way products were grown and processed. In response to these fears and interests, food packaging materials displayed more and more information.


The history of labour standards goes back to the creation of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The need for such an organization had been advocated in the nineteenth century by two industrialists, Robert Owen (1771-1853) of Wales and Daniel Legrand (1783-1859) of France. Their ideas were incorporated into the Constitution of the International Labour Organization, adopted at the end of the First World War. The initial motivation was humanitarian. The condition of workers, more and more numerous and exploited, was less and less acceptable. Second, without an improvement in their condition, the workers would create social unrest. The third motivation was economic. Because of its inevitable effect on the cost of production, any industry or country adopting social reform would find itself at a disadvantage vis-à-vis its competitors. Simultaneous reform through the International Labour Organization would avoid this problem.

The ILO is a tripartite organization that brings together representatives of governments, employers and workers in its executive bodies. The first annual International Labour Conference, in October 1919, adopted the first six International Labour Conventions, which dealt with hours of work in industry, unemployment, maternity protection, night work for women, minimum age and night work for young persons in industry. A few years later, the International Court of Justice declared that the ILO's domain extended also to international regulation of conditions of work in the agricultural sector. In 1948, the International Labour Conference adopted Convention No. 87, on freedom of association and the right to organize.

More recently, some initiatives have developed verifiable labour standards on the basis of (core) ILO conventions. In the agriculture sector, the most important are the SA8000 standard of Social Accountability International and the Base Code of the Ethical Trading Initiative. Also, other standards that will be discussed later, such as environmental and fair-trade standards, have included labour conditions requirements based on ILO Conventions.


In 1983, the United Nations appointed an international commission to propose strategies for "sustainable development" - ways to improve human well-being in the short term without threatening the local and global environment in the long term. Its report, Our Common Future, published in 1987, was widely known as "The Brundtland Report". At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, the international community adopted Agenda 21, a global plan of action for sustainable development[3]. The Commission on Sustainable Development was created in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of UNCED.

Chapter 14 of Agenda 21 deals specifically with Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD). FAO was appointed task manager to monitor the implementation of Chapter 14.

Chapter 4 of Agenda 21 is titled Changing consumption patterns, and includes the following sections:

4.20. The recent emergence in many countries of a more environmentally conscious consumer public, combined with increased interest on the part of some industries in providing environmentally sound consumer products, is a significant development that should be encouraged. Governments and international organizations, together with the private sector, should develop criteria and methodologies for the assessment of environmental impacts and resource requirements throughout the full life cycle of products and processes. Results of those assessments should be transformed into clear indicators in order to inform consumers and decision-makers.

4.21. Governments, in cooperation with industry and other relevant groups, should encourage expansion of environmental labelling and other environmentally related product information programmes designed to assist consumers to make informed choices.

One of the best known environmental labels on food is the organic label. Although one could argue that organic agriculture has been practised for thousands of years in all parts of the world, "certified organic" finds its origin in Europe. In the 1920s, the teachings of Rudolf Steiner inspired people to practice what is now commonly know as bio-dynamic agriculture. In the 1960s, ecological or organic agriculture became known beyond this small group of pioneers, and a consumer base started to build up. The development of organic agriculture was undoubtedly influenced by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which in 1962 exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT and had a great impact on the wider public's awareness of the negative aspects of intensive agriculture methods in general, and the dangers of uncontrolled pesticide use in particular. As the organic sector developed, organic farmers' associations wrote their own standards, more to communicate what they had learned rather than to codify what constitutes "organic farming". The need to codify the parameters of organic farming only became necessary when consumer demand for organically grown products increased, organic products became available in conventional food outlets and price premiums provided incentive for fraud.

Other, more recent, environmental labels on food include the Rainforest Alliance Certified label (formerly ECO-OK); the Smithsonian Institute's Birdfriendly coffee label, and various declarations of the use of "integrated production methods" and integrated pest management (IPM). Also, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed an environmental management systems standard, ISO 14001.


At the London Economic Conference in the 1930s, the League of Nations recognized two important issues. First, the importance of increasing the purchasing power of primary-commodity producers by keeping the export prices of raw materials at fair remunerative levels. Second, that protectionist measures often led to over-production, provoking downward pressure on prices[4]. It was not until the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947 that an organization for trade finally came into existence. GATT focused on removing barriers to trade by commitments for the reduction and elimination of import quotas and tariffs. Dissatisfaction by many developing countries with the single focus of GATT on tariffs and quota reductions led to the creation of UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) in 1964. Developing countries called for "Trade not Aid" during the UNCTAD Conference in 1968, in Delhi. This slogan referred to the need to bridge the gap between foreign exchange available to developing countries through their exports and the foreign exchange needed for their imports[5].

The first "fair-trade" activities led by NGOs were in the United States of America, with Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV beginning to trade with poor communities in developing countries in the late 1940s. In Europe, Oxfam started importing and selling crafts made by Chinese refugees in Hong Kong in the late 1950s. In 1964, Oxfam created the first Alternative Trading Organization (ATO). Parallel initiatives were taking place in The Netherlands, with the establishment of the importing organization S.O.S Wereldhandel (now Fair Trade Organisatie) in 1967. At the same time, Dutch third world groups began to sell cane sugar with the message "By buying cane sugar, you... give poor countries a place in the sun of prosperity". These groups went on to sell handicrafts from developing countries, and in 1969 the first Fair Trade shop opened[6]. The ATOs established direct relations with small-scale poor producers and paid (or claimed to pay) them a higher price for their products.

In the early 1980s, prices for many primary agricultural commodities collapsed, and small-scale coffee producers in particular faced a hard time. In The Netherlands, a fair-trade label (Max Havelaar Keurmerk) was developed and in 1988 the first fair-trade labelled coffee was sold. This is considered the beginning of the second generation of fair-trade initiatives, with the labelling organizations having no economic interests in the labelled products. This model has allowed fair-trade products to be sold through conventional channels.

[1] FAO/WHO, 1999.
[2] The first two paragraphs in this section draw on ILO, 2000.
[3] UNCED, 1992.
[4] Coote, 1992.
[5] Corea, 2001.
[6] Bowen, 2001; Douglas, 2002.

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