The process of developing a national standard for sustainable agriculture has become controversial.
As development of a national standard for sustainable agriculture moves forward, the Northwest Horticultural Council is following the process by participating in a coalition of agricultural and technology groups. The council hopes to ensure that the standard is science-based and commercially feasible.
The Sustainable Agriculture Standards Task Force was formed to help agriculture groups monitor the standards-setting project, said Chris Schlect, president of the Yakima, Washington-based Hort Council, which represents the interests of Pacific Northwest tree fruit growers and shippers. Schlect is concerned that the direction of the sustainable standards will go beyond what most think of as being sustainable practices and require growers to implement organic techniques.
"Sustainable is such an empty word because it means so many different things to so many different people," he said, adding that tree fruit growers have long used integrated pest management, water-saving, and conservation practices. "We have a good story to tell about what we do in growing trees and fruit."
One of the problems with the push to develop a national sustainable agriculture standard is that it is cause driven and not industry driven, he said. "There are few agricultural producers—or small growers—that have been appointed to the committee that is developing the standard. The average grower is not represented. Most on the committee are there because they have a cause."
Moreover, Schlect said that retailers, especially those global in scope, are feeling pressure from environmental initiatives in Europe, spearheaded by groups like Greenpeace, that seek to develop sustainable practices for countries in the Southern Hemisphere and third world countries, reversing loss of rain forests. "Retailers don't make distinctions between their different suppliers. If they require a standard from importers, they must hold all suppliers to the same standard."
Schlect said that the Hort Council believes that a workable standard must be developed from the start, which is why it has joined the task force. "Once they come up with a national standard, it then becomes very hard to undo. That's why we're paying close attention now to the issue."
The task force, which represents a broad spectrum of agricultural associations, supplier groups, and related industries—from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the Biotechnology Industry Organization—has hired Jane Earley of Earley and White Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, to coordinate their efforts.
The standard-setting process, which began in fall 2007, is being conducted under rules set by the American National Standards Institute, a respected voluntary body that has helped develop guidelines in many business sectors. The Leonardo Academy, a nonprofit organization specializing in using market-based incentives to advance sustainability and improve the environment, is facilitating the process and presented a draft standard written by Scientific Certification Systems, a California company that performs third-party certification.
Russell Williams, regulatory relations director for the American Farm Bureau and chair of the task force, said the purpose of the task force is to ensure that any sustainable standards that are developed are workable for all agricultural producers, regardless of size. He became concerned about the nature of the draft standards after attending the first meetings in 2007 that were organized by the Leonardo Academy.
"Production agriculture would have been ill prepared to have the standards turn out as proposed in the original draft," he said. "The nature of the draft standards was so contrary to the nature of production agriculture."
Williams also is a member of the Standards Committee that is responsible for developing the national standards. He was appointed by Leonardo Academy as a producer representative. Several members of the task force are also members of the Standards Committee.
The Standards Committee, with nearly 60 appointed members, comprises representatives from the following groups: agricultural producers (12), users (12), environmentalists (12), and general interest (22). Several universities, trade associations, labor groups, and others make up the general interest category.
"We're concerned that the members on the committee are not really representative of agriculture," Williams said.
The move to develop a national standard for sustainability is not without controversy. Early in the process, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unsuccessfully appealed to the Leonardo Academy, requesting that three USDA representatives be appointed to the Standards Committee.
More recently, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service branch challenged the accreditation of the Leonardo Academy in a letter to the American National Standards Institute, asking the institute to revoke the Leonardo Academy's accreditation that allows it to develop standards.
In a 12-page letter to the institute, USDA/AMS Administrator Lloyd Day provided examples in which the Leonardo Academy failed to operate in accordance with the institute's standard-setting requirements and exceeded the scope of approved standards activities.
Day's letter states, "Leonardo's scope clearly does not encompass issues such as fair labor practices, community benefits, product quality, and product safety and purity—all of which have specific requirements in the Draft Standard for Trial Use."
USDA further requested that the draft standard be withdrawn from further consideration in the standards development process or as the basis for an American National Standard.
The development of standards is designed to be a three-year process, according to institute rules. The sustainable agriculture project began in October 2007 and will end in October 2010.
During the first Standards Committee meeting held in Wisconsin in September 2008, the committee scrapped the original draft standard, agreeing to use it only as a reference. The committee recognized the need to start anew while gathering additional information.
Six subcommittees are being organized to:
- conduct a needs assessment for the sustainable standard
- develop a mission, vision, and scope of the committee and standard
- gather reference documents
- report on methodologies to measure improvements to environmental, social, and economic sustainability
- find funding to support full stakeholder participation in the process
- outline outreach opportunities to solicit involvement from all stakeholders.
All interested stakeholders can participate in subcommittee deliberations, according to institute rules. Subcommittee work will start this spring. The Leonardo Academy is accepting applications for those interested in serving on the nonvoting subcommittees. Applications can be found on their Web site listed below.
The public will have the opportunity to provide feedback before the draft standard is submitted to the institute for promulgation as an American National Standard.
To learn more about the project or become involved, visit: www.leo nardoacademy.org/projects/sustainagatddevelopment.htm.