Sustainability of certified production systems : the case of labels in the food sector



Certification and labelling assert the consumer that the product bought differs in quality, environmental effect or other standards from conventional products. Eco-labels (also called green labels) bring environmental impact assessment to the marketplace by encouraging the production and purchase of goods that meet a set of criteria, which can be environmental, economical, social or ethical or human health promoting. This trend is becoming more and more important in recent years. The term “eco-label” is thus given to an array of properties which are much more than only ecological but can stand for the definition of sustainability. The different stakeholders in the food production chain make increasing efforts for the normalisation and the certification of their products. Each of these initiatives has other objectives and applies other criteria. Therefore it is interesting to study to what extent these strategies, that may also have negative effects, can be instruments in a policy for sustainable development.

Project description


This research project aims at analysing to what extent labelling strategies in the food sector are in accordance and comply with a long-term sustainability strategy. The areas of study thereto are:

(1) the strategies and objectives of stakeholders in label development;
(2) the criteria used to differentiate the products and the kind of trade-offs existing between different sustainability indicators;
(3) the contribution of different labelling and certification strategies to the achievement of national and international sustainability objectives;
(4) the economic sustainability of these strategies: competitiveness of labelled production both in the national and international market;
(5) the social sustainability in terms of social acceptability of the products by producers and consumers; and
(6) the possibilities for an interactive and iterative system for continuous improvements of labelling systems. The basic hypothesis hereby is that labels are not only informing consumers but can also be used to change behaviour of consumers and producers.


Major attention is given to interactive case studies with significant involvement of the different stakeholders. The project is subdivided in the following steps:

(1) review of strategies for sustainable development and the potential role of labelling: through a literature review on the principles of sustainable development and interviews with key-persons involved in developing strategies for sustainable development;
(2) inventory of existing labels in the agro-food sector and selection of labelling strategies. Hereby case studies of labels in the agro-food sector with respect to pesticide reduction are selected. Of these labels, the objectives, actors involved and criteria are identified, followed by the development of technical and socio-economic assessment methods; and
(3) technical and socio-economic analysis of the code of practices and stakeholders’ strategies in labelling strategies controlling pesticides.

Interaction between the different partners

Four research groups are involved in this multidisciplinary thematic network. Each research group tackles the project from its own field of knowledge and interest. Each project component is therefore analysed from different angles, and therefore consists of a technical (mainly focussing on the analysis of strategies controlling pesticides), economic and social part.

Expected results and/or products

The project should provide:

a. a more clear understanding of the ways different labels frame risks and consumers, attribute responsibilities and organise the labelling in terms of communication with the stakeholders
b. a more clear understanding of consumers’ consideration concerning labels, and how they appreciate the role of producers and retailers
c. an identification of scientific and technical uncertainties of the impact of labels
d. an evaluation of the labelling systems in terms of credibility, fairness of the trade-off for consumers and producers and sustainability principles
e. an evaluation of the organisational forms and governance structures of labels
f. a definition of what should be normalised by the state and what should be the responsibilities of the private sector
g. a general assessment of the perspectives of eco-labels as sustainability strategy

At the end of the project, it is expected to have the following dissimination actions:

- organisation of a seminar discussing labelling strategies and sustainability
- publication of a report discussing the importance of labelling strategies
- organisation of specific focus groups disseminating the interactive and iterative research methodology
- publication of a number of scientific articles on the research results
- communication of results on international and national seminars



UGent - Department of Agricultural Economics
The research at this department covers analyses in agricultural policy, rural environmental economics, agro-marketing and rural development. The research in agrarian production economics and policy mainly focuses on the relation and interactions between the farm and the political and rural environment and the consequences of these external interactions for the management of the farm.

UGent - Department of Crop Protection
The long term research strategy of this department fits in with the tendency towards a more sustainable agriculture. The Laboratory of Crop Protection Chemistry, as part of the department is particularly experienced in the study of pesticide residues in crops and environmental samples (soil, water and air) and the study of side effects of pesticide treatments.

The Veterinary and Agrochemical Research centre (VAR) has recently been transferred to the federal Ministry of public health and environment. One of the main research themes in the department Quality and Safety is the development of sustainable agricultural practices that will safeguard the environment and improve the safety of the food chain with regard to chemical contaminants.

The work at the Unit Socio-Economie, Environnement Développement (Fondation Universitaire Luxembourgeoise) focuses on strategies to integrate the environment into social, economic, legal and cultural structures in various areas. This calls for simultaneous analysis of the construction of scientific knowledge, the social dynamics of understanding the stakes involved and policy management and administrative practices.

Contact Information


Guido Van Huylenbroeck
Universiteit Gent (UGent)
Department of Agricultural Economics
Coupure links 653
B-9000 Gent
Tel: +32 (0)9 264 59 26
Fax: +32 (0)9 264 62 46


Walter Steurbaut
Universiteit Gent (UGent)
Department of Crop Protection
Coupure links 653
B-9000 Gent
Tel: +32 (0)9 264 60 11
Fax: +32 (0)9 264 62 49

Luc Pussemier
Veterinary and Agrochemical Research centre (VAR)
Leuvensesteenweg 17
B-3080 Tervuren
Tel: +32 (0)2 769 22 47
Fax: +32 (0)2 769 23 05

Marc Mormont
Fondation Universitaire Luxembourgeoise (FUL)
Avenue de Longwy 185
B-6700 Arlon
Tel: +32 (0)63 23 08 68
Fax: +32 (0)63 23 08 18

Users Committee

Users committee proposed at the start of the project:

- I. Van Oost, ALT, Afdeling Land-en Tuinbouwvorming, Flemish Government
- M. De Moor, LAVA, co-ordination centre of Belgian fruit and vegetable businesses
- I. Verhaevre and M. Vandercammen, OIVO, Research and information centre of consumer organisations
- R. Ham, Quality division, Delhaize supermarket
- U. Avermaete and J. Van Outryve, Boerenbond, Farmers’ organisation
- A. Verhaeghe, Belgian federation of distributors
- L. Porreye, Certagro, inspection and certification body in the agricultural sector
- M.-L. Semaille, Fédération Wallonne de l’agriculture
- L. Bosschaert, FAVV- AFSCA, Food Agency




Name Role Amount
Science for Sustainable Development unknown


Name Role Start End
Steurbaut, Walter member 2003-12-01 2005-11-01
Mormont, Marc member 2003-12-01 2005-11-01
Van Huylenbroeck, Guido promotor 2003-12-01 2005-11-01


Name Role Start End
Department of Crop Protection member 2003-12-01 2005-11-01
Department of Agricultural Economics leader 2003-12-01 2005-11-01

created:2011-12-14 14:18:59 UTC, source:web

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