WASHINGTON, March 9, 2016 - We’ve all seen them in the supermarket. They appear on just about every food package, making promises to consumers. The words “sustainable” and “sustainability,” like the terms “natural” or “simple,” are increasingly being used to market food products in the U.S. And consumers – more intent than ever on knowing how their food is grown and processed – are responding favorably.

Recognizing the power of these words, big food suppliers and retailers like General Mills, ADM, Cargill and Unilever have responded by hiring experts and developing plans for sourcing “sustainably” grown and processed raw materials and ingredients. In many instances, these plans directly affect producers who grow and provide these ingredients.

Take Hellmann’s mayonnaise from Unilever. The company, along with ADM and several other partners, started a sustainability pilot program for soybean farmers in Iowa who supply the oil for the country’s best-selling mayo. In exchange for a small incentive – 10 cents a bushel of soybeans produced for ADM – farmers are asked to self-assess the sustainability of their farms against 400 pages of sustainability objectives and to make “continual improvements” in their operations, such as integrated pest management plans and conservation practices like buffer strips, reduced tillage, cover crops and more.

Although the companies do collect information from the farmers to chart progress, they don’t actively audit the farmers to make sure they’re using improved practices, nor do they look at sustainability from a purely environmental angle, says Mark Jackson, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer and a participant in the program.

Jackson, a former Iowa Soybean Association president, says true sustainability is a three-fold proposition – a “trilogy,” he calls it – that includes environmental, social and economic objectives, a loose definition that the government first proposed decades ago.

Environmental sustainability refers to good soil and water management practices that enhance the long-term viability of a farm, he said. Social sustainability refers to good management practices for humans – are farm workers fairly compensated? Do they receive an adequate amount of time off? And finally, economic sustainability. This principle is crucial, Jackson said, to keeping his farm in the family, which he hopes some day will be passed on to his grandchildren.

In his “neighborhood,” Jackson said sustainable management practices, particularly environmental best-management practices, are the norm because farmers “have to be sustainable” to survive.

“When (the pilot program) came here, they thought they were going to tell us (farmers) how to improve,” Jackson said. Instead, “I think they were amazed at what they saw.”

USDA defined sustainability in very broad terms that farmers, industry and even conservation groups seem to be on board with it.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Agri-Pulse that the definition comes up every farm bill cycle. But his group has never asked for an enforceable definition or a stricter one, and doesn’t expect to.

Nancy Kavazanjian, a Wisconsin farmer who is the sustainability coordinator for the United Soybean Board and also the chairwoman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, says sustainability is “one of those words that can make the hair on the back of a farmer’s head stand up.” Still, she says it is a quality farmers and industry need to work together on to define and promote throughout the supply chain.

“We want it to mean something,” she said, unlike the term “natural” that “people just throw around.”

Kavazanjian says farmers know sustainability is something that consumers want, and that companies are looking for farmers to help meet those consumer demands. That’s why she says it’s important for farmers “to get out ahead” and demonstrate to industry and consumers what they are already doing, instead of waiting for companies to come to them with what could be a patchwork of sustainability policies.

One alternative to industry and producer collaboration is an enforceable definition of sustainable that restricts how the word can be used, perhaps similarly to how “organic” is currently enforced by USDA.

Such a policy would eliminate the threat of a policy patchwork for farmers and may promote consumer confidence in products labeled as “sustainable,” but it could also impose more regulatory costs on the food supply chain.

Another alternative would be a program like Field to Market, an alliance of more than 95 grower groups, agribusinesses, food and restaurant companies, universities and conservation groups that offers producers a method of measuring their farms’ sustainability and improving it with scientifically verified practices. Field to Market’s Fieldprint calculator – which quantifies soil health, input levels, and water quality – is also used to measure progress toward total farm sustainability in the Hellmann’s mayonnaise project.

Some companies have also elected to hire third-party auditing firms, like Intertek, which verifies the origin, quantity, quality and delivery of a sizable portion of the United Nations’ World Food Programme food aid. For private firms, Intertek also audits farming operations according to its clients’ definition of sustainability.

For instance, some of Intertek’s clients sell finished cocoa products to a number of U.S. and international companies that have very strict sustainability standards that prohibit the purchase of goods produced with child labor or with insufficient female participation.

Bill Raffety, Intertek’s director of sales and development for agriculture services, told Agri-Pulse that producers would probably be interested in enrolling in a USDA certification program for sustainability if the definition would add value to their operations, because many farmers in the U.S. already use sustainable practices. Such a system audited by a third party would make the program more legitimate in the public’s eyes, he continued, and allow people “to stop wondering” about what the term really means.

While consumers are driving companies to source more sustainably, the push for an enforceable definition would “most likely be driven by demand from industry, with USDA formulating a definition,” he said.


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