Metrics to measure sustainability
A new way to measure sustainability for specialty crops will be tested this year.
Jonathan Kaplan believes that sustainability is a journey for the whole food industry, and not just farmers.
Most sustainability programs tell producers what they can and can’t do. A different approach is being taken in a new program for specialty crops, one that shifts the focus to measuring performance instead of dictating what practices should be followed.
Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently explained the details of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops with tree fruit industry members attending the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in Wenatchee. He encouraged those interested to join the project’s online dialogue and participate in the development of the stewardship metrics.
Several years ago, NRDC was looking for better tools to take advantage of the growing interest in sustainability in the marketplace, said Kaplan of NRDC’s San Francisco, California, office. “Frankly, we were dissatisfied with the offering of certification programs out there, programs that tended to make sense only for a niche market. We wanted a system that could gauge the entire industry.”
What followed were discussions between NRDC and industry organizations like the Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Grape Commission, Western Growers Association, Produce Marketing Association, and United Fresh Produce Association, that led to a radically different approach to sustainability. Specialty-crop producers have faced a proliferation of food safety and sustainability certification requests from their buyers, but few programs have looked at the supply chain as a whole.
In September 2008, this diverse group developed the vision for a sustainable measuring system that would encompass the specialty-crop supply chain, from grower to retailer. The system would develop metrics (to measure performance without imposing required practices or scores) that could be used to address a range of impacts across all specialty crops and used by all who wish to participate.
“Rather than trying to tell each operator how to farm or process their food, what if we could come up with a system to measure their performance?” Kaplan asked. “Let them figure out the best way to get there.”
The group wanted to focus on the things that really mattered, like how much water was being used, and develop a system where all operators—the best or most challenged—could measure where they’re at, Kaplan said. “The group agreed that we shouldn’t try to do this on the backs of our farmers alone, and that sustainability was a journey for the whole industry to be on, and that a system was needed for measurement, not just at the farm level, but also for distributors, processors, and retail foodservice providers.”
The stakeholder group decided to use the word “stewardship” to avoid the sensitivities associated with the term “sustainable.” Also, the term “stewardship” was compatible with the group’s effort to not identify a sustainable level of performance.
The Stewardship Index focuses on people, planet, and profit, easier concepts to grasp than the three components of sustainability (environment, economics, and social responsibility). Many aspects are measured under the planet, including air quality, biodiversity and ecosystems, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, nutrients, packaging, pesticides, soils, waste, water quality, and water use. Under people, human resources cover worker health and safety and employment practices, while community covers things like local sourcing and hiring. Profit measures green procurement and fair price/incentives.
He believes that one of the biggest benefits to a metrics-based approach could be the reduction of duplicative reporting now incurred by many growers who are trying to meet a host of food-safety program audits.
Kaplan noted that one of the Stewardship project’s strengths is that the whole industry has been invited to join in the development of the performance-based metrics. One of the criticisms of an earlier effort to develop a national agricultural sustainable program by the Leonardo Academy was the exclusivity of the organizing committee. Anyone can join the Stewardship Index’s various metrics review committees and work groups to help review and revise the proposals, he said, adding that webinars are often used to discuss the issues. Some 35 webinars have been held thus far.
More than 300 people have been involved so far, with about 25 percent representing growers and 25 percent representing nongovernmental organizations, he adds.
Although the concept was developed more than 18 months ago, nearly half of the metrics are now ready for testing. A pilot system of the completed metrics will be tested in the coming year to learn how the program works in the field.
Kaplan said ultimately, he hopes the index will give producers a tool to measure and track their improvements in practices that impact people, planet, and profit and that they can take credit for their efforts.
To join in the discussion, go to www.stewardshipindex.org.