Frequently Asked Questions about COSA™
and the work of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment
What is COSA?
What is COSA used for?
What is the primary objective of COSA?
Why do we need such information, isn't it available already?
Who assures your credibility?
Who assures your relevance?
How were COSA indicators selected to measure?
Who operates COSA and how is it paid for?
How does COSA work?
What crops does COSA measure?
Is COSA information shared?
How long does COSA take to get information?
Is COSA an academic exercise?
How much does it cost to implement COSA?
Are there other ways to measure the impacts of sustainability efforts?
What is the basis or legitimacy of COSA?
Who partners with COSA?
Is COSA itself sustainable?
1. What is COSA?
The Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA™) is a global consortium
of institutions fostering effective ways to measure and understand
sustainability in the agri-food sector.
COSA has developed a transparent meta-tool (common framework and indicators)
understand the costs & benefits of sustainability in a globally
consistent and scientific
COSA will be the repository of the world's most extensive collection
of empirical data on the topic of sustainable agriculture with one
of its partner institutions: the United Nations' International Trade
2. What is COSA used for?
The COSA measurement tools analyze the social, environmental, and economic
effects on producers and their communities. COSA is the only publicly
available evaluation or assessment methodology to fully measure the
sustainability of agricultural systems in a globally comparable manner.
By providing a scientifically-based understanding of what is sustainable
COSA tools serve as an effective means of:
- Determining policymaking and donor investment priorities
- Structuring and conducting the monitoring and evaluation efforts
for initiatives and projects
- Managing suppliers/supply chains for firms wanting to affect their
sustainability efforts or to benchmark them
- Providing producers with practical business-decision tools to assess
the costs and benefits of various sustainability practices, especially
those associated with the implementation of any standards or certification
3. What are the primary objectives of COSA?
COSA is designed to provide a consistent set of indicators for use
in nearly any agricultural system and the methods to gather that indicator
data so as to ensure its scientific credibility. By having volumes
of empirical data over time, a true understanding of sustainability
can emerge. With consistent indicators, we can begin to communicate
in a clear and common language of sustainability.
This means looking beyond just the economic factors and considering
valid indicators for the environmental and social effects as well.
It also means considering radiating effects on producers, the supply
chain, and the community.
While COSA is best known as a way to measure the costs and benefits
of implementing any sustainability initiatives such as organic or fair
trade, it is also useful for two other objectives:
- as a business management tool to assess a firm's own supply chain,
- as a form of project Monitoring and Evaluation providing balanced,
accurate and comparable data.
4. Why do we need such information, isn't it available already?
We cannot manage what we cannot measure.
Actually there is surprisingly little credible information about agricultural
sustainability. Most of the research focuses only on one pillar i.e.
social or economic. A considerable number of studies are anecdotal
with limited statistical relevance or one-time case studies that are
not comparable with other studies or sectors or countries. Some researchers
have used partisan methods to prove a pre-existing bias or fail to
integrate control groups and account for the counterfactual. Further
most research has been a "snapshot" only and not usually followed for
multiple years when we would better see the unfolding of social and
environmental impacts that are not always evident in the short term.
As a consequence, distorted signals are sent to producers, firms & policymakers.
In order to be most useful the indicators and measurement processes
COSA insists on are engineered to provide practical and credible information
• Neutral, replicable & transparent
• Scientifically sound (i.e. control groups)
• Statistically significant
• Longitudinal (multi-year) where possible
• Comparable across countries and across sectors
5. Who assures COSA's scientific credibility?
COSA is an evolving process that benefits from many contributors. Among
these are some of the world's most noted scientists and experts. The
public character of COSA allows for constant input and improvement.
Our Scientific Committee includes:
- Lawrence Busch (Lancaster University and Michigan State University)
- Alain DeJanvry (University of California at Berkeley)
- Jeremy Haggar (Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza
- Michael Hiscox (Harvard University)
- Steven Jaffee (World Bank)
- Krislert Samphantharak (University of California at San Diego)
- Sietze Valeema (Wageningen University)
* members serve as voluntary advisors, their participation does not
imply endorsement of the findings or of the institutions.
6. Who assures COSA's relevance?
COSA recognizes that it must adapt to conditions in different sectors.
As such it works with an International Advisory Panel of esteemed experts
from across the spectrum. The Coffee Panel includes (partial list):
7. How were COSA indicators selected to measure?
In order for selected indicators to be widely accepted, these measurements
were designed and evaluated using global participatory processes that
involved hundreds of developing country producers, traders, leading
companies, NGOs, standards bodies, intergovernmental agencies, and
The filter included a complete assessment of the specific objectives
of all the main standards bodies. The process took into account dozens
of recognized international and normative references such as Convention
on Biological Diversity, FAO Rome Declaration on World Food Security,
ILO Core 8 Conventions, Millennium Development Goals, Rio Declaration,
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, UN Framework
Convention on Climate Change, UN Global Compact, Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, Winnipeg Principles, and WHO Guidelines for Water
Quality among others.
8. Who operates COSA and how is it paid for?
The Committee on Sustainability Assessment is an independent body that
is facilitated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development
(IISD) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
through their Sustainable Commodity Initiative (SCI).
COSA partners with a number of regional and international organizations
to support its development and dissemination.
The 5 year participatory development process has been principally
driven by a group of committed volunteer experts. These experts include
a Scientific Committee and a broad International
Advisory Panel. Today, implementation expenses in target countries
are supported by local partners as well as international NGOs and donors.
9. How does COSA work?
COSA employs four components:
1. A set of globally comparable indicators that capture the effects
sustainability approaches such as certifications.
a. COSA looks at the direct costs and benefits (e.g. yields, documentation,
certification) and indirect ones as well (i.e. credit, quality, market
also includes some of the less tangible benefits associated with sustainable
practices (e.g., learning, well-being, community development).
2. Field surveys with local partners measuring the indicators in different
provide multidimensional quantitative panel data for various agricultural
3. Data management and analysis with Scientific Committee and partners
neutral assessments of the extent to which sustainability is achieved.
4. Global dissemination of basic data points via the UN system (International
Centre) to improve global understanding of sustainability in agriculture.
10. What crops does COSA measure? Where does it currently operate?
COSA is designed for all agricultural commodities but has first been developed for coffee and cocoa with upcoming plans for cotton, tea, and other crops.
Photo courtesy of Henry Hueck, RAMACAFE, S.A.
11. Is COSA information shared?
Yes, but identifying details are kept private. COSA will house the
collection of agricultural sustainability data in the world. It has
a mandate to generate globally comparable information and share that
information publicly so that everyone - from farmers to policymakers
- can effectively make appropriate choices about sustainability. COSA's
partnership with the United Nation's International Trade Centre (ITC)
allows it to provide an open global platform and database for natural
resource sustainability. To share the measurement tools and processes
with research institutions for analysis, COSA will employ quality control
measures to help ensure globally comparable results and fair access.
It will offer results in simple to use formats that are publicly available.
12. How long does COSA take to get information?
The field process requires about 1-2 hours with a farmer and
less with buyers and producer organizations to complete a survey. COSA
can be used immediately for management feedback or project monitoring
and it is perhaps most effective when measures are taken annually and
changes are observed over time. Changes at the environmental and social
level are not always immediately evident, so having at least 3 years
of data offers a much more realistic understanding. COSA strives for
systemized and ongoing monitoring and evaluation in the places where
it has trained local partners.
13. Is COSA an academic exercise?
COSA does use a scientifically rigorous process to ensure reliability,
statistically relevant information. However, its broad range of practical
information including the costs of production, key health concerns,
the level of soil erosion and much more makes it a valuable practical
decision-making and improvement tool, particularly for farmers and
14. How much does it cost to implement COSA?
Implementation can be at the farm/enterprise level or the national
level and thus it varies considerably. The primary cost control is
embedded in COSA's policy of training local institutional partners.
Costs depend primarily on the number of surveys required to achieve
a representative sample. The other components are training, quality
control in the field, data processing-cleaning, and final analysis.
Once COSA is learned and implemented, subsequent measures, even for
different crops, are expected to be relatively less expensive and can
eventually even be applied independently at a co-op or firm level.
15. Are there other ways to measure the impacts of sustainability efforts?
Yes, several recent efforts borrow from COSA and some are evolving
separately. COSA collaborates with a number of partners, such as the
ISEAL Alliance, that are now developing performance-based metrics and
guidelines. COSA is unique in that it is not an ad hoc collection
of measures or indicators; it is a comprehensive system developed from
an extensive participatory process with farmers, scientists, private
sector, and NGOs. Only one other comparable system (a private one)
has been developed and well-tested for several years as a comprehensive
approach to measure sustainability.
16. What is the basis or legitimacy of COSA?
- COSA is a non-profit group and offers a participatory process to
generate information it believes is a valuable public good.
- COSA is designed as a neutral measurement method to understand
the outcomes of any sustainability efforts.
- COSA has already been tested in 8 countries1, embodies continuous
improvement and integrates current scientific principles that result
in credible information.
- COSA methods were developed by a broad group of stakeholders that
range from producer groups and NGOs to international agencies and
- COSA follows best practices in measurement and assessment and it
is based on the Bellagio and Rio principles focusing on economic,
social, and environmental measures.
- COSA is in accord with dozens of key International and Normative
References that include: The Convention on Biological Diversity,
FAO Rome Declaration on World Food Security, IFC Social and Environmental
Policies & Performance Standards, ILO Core 8 Conventions International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Plant
Protection Convention, Millennium Development Goals, OECD Economic
Guidelines, Stockholm Convention on POP, UN Framework Convention
on Climate Change, UN Global Compact, Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, WHO Guidelines, etc.
17. Who Partners with COSA?
Collaborators include producer groups and private firms, government
and donors, academic institutions and NGOs. In recent 2009 field work,
COSA partnered with: CGIAR's World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the Colombian
National Federation of Coffee Growers, the Regional Centre for Social
and Economic Studies (CRECE), The Centro Agronómico Tropical de
Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE); Ministry of Agriculture
of Tanzania, Rainforest Alliance, The Sustainable Tree Crops Program,
Utz Certified, Technoserve, and several private firms and producer groups.
List of Research Partners, 2012
18. Is COSA itself sustainable?
COSA works directly with regional or national partners to build local
capacity to conduct good measurement and integrate it into ongoing
programs. It serves as a business management tool and facilitates smarter
business decisions on the part of farmers, funders, or firms. COSA
efforts will also inform the sustainability initiatives themselves
to improve their effectiveness and several are already active partners.
Its practical usefulness and local empowerment means that it need not
be dependent on donor support.