Sustainability and the future of food

Organically grown corn has more weeds late in the season, but the USDA found that yields were similar to those of conventionally grown corn. Weeds are managed with cover crops and cultivation in the organic plots

There’s a sustainability standard on the horizon for growers, processors and others who help get food from farm to consumers, and if you’d like to have a say in it, this is the time.

A standard is needed because consumers are increasingly looking for products that are grown and processed in a sustainable manner, says Linda Brown, executive vice president of SCS (Scientific Certification Systems), which develops sustainability standards and certifies companies in a variety of industries.

“Consumers care,” she says. “Research shows they’re making decisions based on the perceived environmental and social responsibility of companies. And, they’re willing to spend more for it.”

The problem is that “sustainable” means many things to many people, and the confusion is likely to increase as the market grows. It isn’t helping that all types of agricultural sectors are making conflicting claims about sustainability, she says. According to a study done by Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship and the strategy and communications agency Cone LLC, more than half of consumers are skeptical about  environmental claims that companies are making, and are looking to third parties to corroborate them.

The lack of a nationwide standard is causing problems for growers, too, because they have to decide which standard to adopt. The federal government prefers a voluntary standard to a regulatory one because there’s no cost to taxpayers. Fortunately, The Sustainable Agriculture Practice Standard for Food, Fiber and Biofuel Crop Producers and Agricultural Product Handlers and Processors is already in the works.

The draft of the standard for trial use

SCS launched the process through ANSI (American National Standards Institute), which posted notice of the draft of the standard for trial use in April 2007.

“SCS has been working on sustainability standards for about 20 years, with the fresh produce, forestry and fisheries industries,” Brown says. In the fresh produce industry, it’s taken the lead in establishing certification standards for product safety, purity, flavor and nutrition. ANSI, a nonprofit organization that develops voluntary standards for industries such as sustainable forestry, food safety and industrial safety, accredits SCS procedures.

The draft will be in effect until April 2010, and it contains three main categories. The first, environmental sustainability, includes sustainable crop production, ecosystem management and protection, resource conservation, energy efficiency and integrated waste management. The second category, social and economic sustainability, includes fair labor practices, community benefits and financial viability. The third, product integrity, includes product quality, safety and purity.

“The draft is a starting point for discussions,” Brown says. “Our job was to bring up issues that need to be considered by stakeholders. Nothing is set in stone.”

Although all members of the standards committee, which will vote on the final standard, have been chosen, interested parties still can participate. Producers—including individual growers with farms of all sizes, food companies, retailers, trade associations, government regulators, environmental groups and academics—can join task groups and resource groups. They also can make public comments.

The certification process

Once the standard is finalized, growers can be certified. “Certification is a way for growers to be recognized,” Brown says. “It will give them a marketing edge, because consumers will have confidence that they’ve fulfilled the requirements that meet the standard.”

However, it’s important to recognize that the purpose of the standard is not only to become certified. Growers can use it as a set of guidelines to help them improve the way they do business as well as to develop sustainable practices, she says. For example, they might be able to decrease their costs or find new ways to solve problems, whether or not they plan to become certified.

Growers who decide to be certified can apply to SCS or any other qualified certifier. They submit information about their business, which remains confidential. An auditor conducts on-site inspections and interviews, then writes up an audit report to guide the company on practices to work on toward the standard. This gives growers a benchmark of where they stand, she says.

There are fees, as yet undetermined, associated with both the process and the license. “Cost is a variable to consider,” Brown acknowledges. “It’s a question of balancing costs and benefits. What does it cost, in terms of both time and money, to adopt sustainable procedures?”

The standard in its current form is designed to not create obstacles for growers, she says. Certification has built-in flexibility so they can accomplish their goals regardless of the size of their operation. Brown expects there to be a sliding scale for fees in the certification itself.

The first changes people usually make are the ones that save them money and are easiest to adopt, she says. They make more difficult changes and ones that cost more, but have a larger return on their investment over the long term. Businesses will be certified when they have achieved all the requirements of the standard. To remain certified, they submit updated information and undergo audits each year.

Elements in the draft standard

One of the main elements is sustainable crop production. It’s based on healthy soils and phasing out, or at least minimizing, potentially dangerous pesticides and fertilizers.

On the left side of photo, protective crop residue has been left on the surface of a lowtill area, where Soil Scientist Joe Bradford is standing. On the right side, conventional tillage has exposed the soil to wind and water erosion in the adjoining field where Agronomist Jim Smart kneels.

The draft standard encourages growers to use sustainably grown or organic seedstock and rootstock, and not use genetically modified organisms. Growers plant native vegetation in buffer zones, encourage beneficial plants and animals, monitor pests and diseases, compost and keep records of all amendments they add to the soil, as well as the method, rates and application dates of any pesticides they use.

They also submit a plan to convert to organic soil health practices, giving methods, procedures and a timetable. The draft standard takes into account that converting may take some growers more time than others. For those who want to become certified, the time would be determined by the crop and the region. The draft standard also takes into account that in some cases it may not be feasible to completely convert to organic.

Growers can use chemical controls when biological, mechanical and cultural methods don’t work, or when they have a negative effect—for example, harm water quality. In these cases, growers should apply the least toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and integrate them with other practices that minimize their use.

Another important element is resource conservation and energy efficiency. It includes water conservation practices such as installing water-saving irrigation systems and managing wastewater. If possible, growers should treat wastewater and use it for irrigation.

For the energy efficiency section, growers monitor the energy consumption of all their farming operations and list their shipment destinations, distances and means of transportation. Growers also describe any generation of electricity or fuels on their land, and develop a plan to increase energy efficiency, with timelines.

There’s even a section on conserving the materials growers use to package and ship their products. Growers describe the materials, including if they were reused, composted or made from recycled or sustainable sources. They also assess ways to reduce the volume of packaging, increase the amount of recyclable or compostable materials in it, obtain it from sustainable sources or reuse it.

Finalizing the standard

The nonprofit Leonardo Academy of Madison, Wis., is managing the process that takes the draft standard to the final draft. It has developed ANSI standards for sustainable vehicles, buildings and organizations and, as a neutral third party, it was accredited by ANSI to ensure that all stakeholders have a voice.

The academy chose the 58-member standards committee, which will vote on the final standard, from 175 applicants, both individuals and organizations. Members of the committee fall into one of four categories across all sectors of agriculture: producers, users, environmentalists and “general interest” stakeholders who don’t fit in any of the other categories.

“They pick as diverse a group as possible,” Brown says. They also look for technical competence and sector representation. The Leonardo Academy also invites stakeholders to serve as members of subcommittees, which focus on specific issues and sectors.

The standards committee meets from time to time to vote on issues brought up by the subcommittees. As part of the ANSI process, it also reviews information from task groups, advisory groups and resource groups as well as public comments, which they must respond to in good faith. The voting process is based on consensus-building, not just a majority vote, Brown says, and there is an appeals process.

“It’s an open, transparent process,” she says. “There has to be rational discussion. We all have strong and valid opinions that should be heard.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.

Web sites:

The draft:

Key elements of the draft:

Standards questions and answers:

Members of the standards committee:

Contact Leonardo Academy to participate: