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May 13, 2010

New agricultural initiative aims to move past greenwashing into measured sustainability

Zachary Stahl
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E veryone’s for sustainability, the buzz word of our times. But when Salinas Valley agricultural giants plant, grow, pack, and ship berries and broccoli nationally, what does it really mean? Central Coast ag leaders are working on real-world answers.

A broad-based consortium of retail heavyweights, trade associations and environmental organizations (from Wal-Mart to Natural Resources Defense Council) are testing out a system to measure everything from pesticides and irrigation runoff to greenhouse gas emissions and wildlife habitat conversation. Although the so-called Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops isn’t as sexy as biodiesel tractors and turbine-fueled farms, the metrics could give the ag industry a triple-bottom-line yardstick.

“There is so much greenwashing going on,” says Tim York, founding member of the Stewardship Index and president of Salinas-based produce purchaser Markon Cooperative. “It’s not well defined what is or isn’t sustainable. [Sustainability] has to be specific, measurable and verifiable.”

So far, more than 90 growers in 15 states have agreed to collect the data, tallying up inputs including fertilizer and fuel use, says Andrew Arnold, senior consultant for SureHarvest. The Soquel-based company is administering a $630,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that, along with the Packard Foundation, is helping fund pilots this growing season across the supply chain.

“We are trying to get [the metrics] out to real-world farming operations to get some feedback from folks and see how difficult it is to collect the data,” Arnold says. No Salinas-area lettuce growers have committed to a pilot yet, but York says there’s a lot of interest.

That’s apparent in the players already involved: Driscoll’s signed up for a pilot; produce buyers like SYSCO and Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation are on the index’s Leadership Council.

The index’s original inspiration came from fatigue from the numerous food safety audits that retailers and buyers expected from growers in the wake of the 2006 E. coli breakout. Rather than eventually have food producers use the same redundant process for sustainability, York says, it would be more efficient and less expensive to have an industry-wide index.

Still, some ag companies are hesitant to jump on board. “There is some apprehension on the part of folks on how these metrics will be used by the buying community and similarly by the regulatory community,” Arnold says.

The metrics are designed to measure eco-friendly performance without forcing the industry’s hand, which means the system—like the voluntary Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, which was hatched after the spinach-sourced E. coli outbreak—lacks teeth. But unlike the controversial food safety practices, enviros and small farmers are at the table this time, and supporters say the metrics are only a starting point.

“If you measure it, you can manage it,” Arnold says, adding that companies can compare notes and find efficiencies. “When you start to publish data…it becomes a more transparent process.”

It’s still up in the air if and when the index will end up on supermarket shelves. York says third-party companies could eventually put a sustainability seal on produce. The label could become the new—and perhaps improved—organic.