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With major food companies joining the green movement, a growing number of farmers are being asked questions about their sustainability efforts and/or programs. Growers can either view the movement as opportunity or imposition, says Dr. Cliff Ohmart.

“They can either see [sustainability] as a light at the end of the tunnel or as a train that is coming to run over them,” he said. Growers can be proactive, moving forward to develop a program that can add value to their product, or they can be reactive and respond to programs developed in a top-down manner that likely will become another cost of doing business.

Ohmart, who last September became vice president of professional services for SureHarvest, Inc., shared his perspective of the trends occurring in the agricultural sustainability arena at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in Wenatchee. Ohmart is best known for his work in the development and adoption of a sustainability program for Lodi-Woodbridge wine grape growers and their third-party certification program called LodiRules for Sustainable Winegrowing.

All of the major supermarket chains and food companies have sustainability information on their Web sites, he said during a session on sustainability. Many of the sites include goals and reports showing benchmarks and efforts to reduce their environmental footprint. Topics from water conservation and waste reduction to wind power and animal welfare are discussed on the Web pages of companies like Safeway, SuperValu, Kroger Foods, SYSCO, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s. “They’re serious about this,” he said.

Fifteen questions

Wal-Mart rolled out its concept of a worldwide sustainability index last summer. It began by asking its suppliers to answer 15 questions about their sustainability. A sampling of these questions include:

—Have you measured your corporate greenhouse gas emissions?

—Have you set publicly available water use reduction targets?

—Have you established publicly available sustainability purchasing guidelines for your direct suppliers that address issues such as environmental compliance, employment practices, and product/ingredient safety?

Wal-Mart has stated it aims to develop a global database of information on the lifecycle of products—from raw materials to disposal—and partner with a company that would create an open platform to power the index. The final step would be to translate the data into a rating for consumers about the sustainability of products.

“Wal-Mart’s 15 questions have had a big impact on producers,” Ohmart said. “Wal-Mart wants all of its 100,000 suppliers, including food suppliers, to answer its 15 questions. But one of the big complaints I hear is that there are no economics here at all. What’s interesting about Wal-Mart is their motto of ‘Save money. Live better.’ Save money for whom? This effort is not going to save the growers or suppliers money to implement sustainability.”

Trends

One of the biggest problems with sustainability is that the current push by foodservice and retailers has no common framework for producers in which to approach the issue, he explained. “But that can’t go on forever.”

For organic producers, uniform rules for all states have been developed as part of the National Organic Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Not so for sustainability, Ohmart said. “For sustainability, anybody can put a stake in the sand and put a name on it.”

He says that efforts to develop a national program are under way, such as the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which seeks to develop metrics to measure ¬sustainability performance for commodities.

Ohmart believes the public push for sustainability reporting will continue. Surveys show that the millennial generation will continue to demand focus on the ¬environment and sustainability. He also points out that the ongoing focus on climate change helps to keep the environment in the consumer’s mind.

Eventually, sustainability will be integrated into ¬business processes and management, he said.

Proactive

Ohmart suggests that rather than be forced to implement some type of sustainability program to keep market share or respond to regulatory changes, growers should view the issue as an opportunity to learn more about their practices and become more efficient.

Complying with a multitude of sustainability programs is not a pleasant scenario, he said. “And I worry that if programs come from the top down, sustainability will become a cost of doing business and growers may not get any more money to pay for their efforts. Can we turn this around to bring opportunity to agriculture?”

He points to his experience with the California wine industry to show that programs developed from bottom up can be an opportunity instead of an imposition.

“It really can help to unify the grower community through a common understanding of sustainability,” Ohmart said. “Being proactive creates a powerful message for whomever your market or audience is. The California wine industry is a showcase in point of a program that’s had a big effect.”

Vision

A sustainable program starts with a vision. What are you trying to accomplish as a company? Without a vision, you may end up someplace else, he warns.

Identify your issues and create some way to measure the things you are doing well and those that need improvement, he said. Some type of self-assessment is needed that can identify strengths and weaknesses.

“It would be great if you can add value to your product by doing all this,” he said.

What’s in it for the grower?

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” he said, noting that from his science background, he believes there are always ways of doing things better. A self assessment by growers also helps them to zero in on their efficiencies as well as make comparisons with their neighbors and learn from their peers.

“It’s the concept that a rising tide raises all ships,” he said, adding that all in the industry benefit from a ¬collaborative and collective effort.