Does LEAF Marque deliver more sustainable farming? Why Outcomes Matter

Jenny Clark, Senior Technical Assistant, discusses the importance of outcome-based approaches, why they matter and the ground-breaking lead LEAF is taking in this area to ensure the LEAF Marque Standard continues to drive forward innovation, improvements and meaningful changes towards more sustainable farming.

What makes a great standard

This week, I have been at the ISEAL Members’ Week – the major annual event for ISEAL members to meet, learn from each other, share experiences and new innovations and generally immerse ourselves in the world of standards setting.  There was lots of discussion around “practices” and “results” - the adoption of these two concepts in relation to LEAF Marque is very dear to my heart and of course, with UK government discussions around ‘public money for public goods’ and ‘payment by results’, there could not be a more important time for UK agriculture, and those supplying into UK markets, to really demonstrate what results they can deliver. 

Great standards are about delivering results and impact and managing to outcomes will help drive forward lasting and sustainable change. 

Actions are easy. Only outcomes matter.

Don’t get me wrong.  Outputs are important.  We are pretty good at tracking activity and practice uptake of LEAF Marque certified businesses.  We know for example, how many metres of hedges they have planted, what percentage carry out a waste management plan, how many are using a Carbon Footprint tool.  But increasingly, these proxies are becoming insufficient in demonstrating the real tangible impact of the LEAF Marque assurance system.   Though “what we do” certainly matters, fundamentally, what we really want to know is “why it matters”.   

Practices measure what we do. Outcomes measure effectiveness and what changes have occurred as a result of specific actions.   For example, a farmer may have planted X metres of hedges, but what difference has this made to farmland bird populations – have they increased? has it made a difference to the breadth of species visiting the farm?    


Why outcomes matter

Here’s why outcomes matter.  Outcomes help:

  • Tell our story more effectively
  • Demonstrate value
  • Get clarity around its purpose and ‘end goal’
  • Measure the effectiveness of specific actions
  • Stimulate innovation and flexibility
  • Ensure continual improvement 

Moving towards an outcome-based standard

So, with this in mind, over the past three months LEAF has embarked on a pioneering new project to look at including outcomes in the LEAF Marque Standard. The transition would be towards a hybrid approach, having outcomes included alongside the existing practice-based approach, to get the best of both worlds. As a starting point, we are looking at biodiversity, with plans to consider soil management, water management and energy efficiency in the future.   With funding from the ISEAL Innovations Fund, we have been working with sustainability consultants NewForesight and a diverse group of stakeholders, to start to map out what this might look like.  Specifically, deciding on the outcomes and how we might monitor and assure the outcomes.

One of LEAF Marque’s intended impacts within the area of biodiversity is to ‘improve and enhance the management of native habitats biodiversity’. With this in mind, our stakeholders outlined two key outcomes indicators: presence of indicator species which have been locally negotiated; and the percentage of land management for habitat, appropriate for native biodiversity.

We are now looking at the specific processes which leads to the achievement of these outcomes, how they can be monitored and assuring outcomes – perhaps through a system-based audit approach. Ensuring this approach is applicable to all 34 countries that LEAF Marque operates in will be a challenge but we plan to include early elements of this transition in the next version of the LEAF Marque Standard, which will be out for consultation later in the year. 

Roadmap Towards Outcome-Based Approach

The path forward will not be easy.  What is clear is that performance-based criteria in standards are no longer enough.   A new approach, focused on actual, measurable outcomes is needed.  Such a transition will require focus, determination and collaboration with leading thinkers across the food and farming sector.  At the end of the day, we have to decide if we care enough about the goal of more sustainable farming and about the assurance systems which are the vehicles for delivering it, to do what it takes to make them better.    LEAF is determined to take the lead; to take the necessary steps to drive forward meaningful change and shape the future sustainability landscape.

Read the full Summary Report here

With thanks to NewForesight, LEAF Marque Technical Advisory Committee, contributors to the Outcome-based Biodiversity Approaches Workshop and the ISEAL Innovations Fund supported by SECO.