Former President Dwight Eisenhower once said farming is easy when you are 1,000 miles away, the field is a piece of paper and the plow is a pencil.
That sage statement made over 50 years ago rings truer today as entities attempt to protect market share by appeasing subjective ideals, activists and a customer base that feels compelled to show more concern than their competitor.
Today California Citrus Mutual can document 18 audits that suppliers are asked to comply with. No two are alike.
Today we are witnessing a growing demand by customers challenging a supplier’s sustainability, food safety and social conscious practices. Direct communications are made seeking individual evaluations as if sound business practices don’t dictate a daily evaluation.
This is all the more remarkable when the vast majority of producers are second-, third- or even fourth-generation farmers working the same land that previous generations developed to create a bountiful, affordable food supply.
Contrast that with the constant change that occurs at the retail level with consolidation, personnel changes, closings and market share reductions.
Professing concern is a clever marketing strategy. It means that you care and care more than the next guy. You are so caring that your operation base never incurs the same level of scrutiny.
The consequences of projecting these concerns, regardless of whether genuine or not, are unnecessary costs, more duplication, and undocumented improvements, all of which fall on dedicated producers who have created the safest, most productive food system in the world.
By design the cost of projecting this concern and redundant programs is underwritten by the less powerful and less wealthy and those captive to a perishable product to sell annually.
A further irony is that whatever is asked for today will never be enough tomorrow. Not all of this is consumer driven.
It is motivated by a desire to placate activists who energize CEOs even farther removed from the field or shareholders who want to be on the cutting edge of concern.
It’s nice for those in urban centers to determine how best to farm in rural areas. It is a luxury they want and assume others need to do.
There are subjective programs created by and audited by individuals or entities with a conflict of interest.
If activists ever concur that enough is enough, then they are obligated to be satisfied. Once satisfied they are no longer activists — and, worse yet, no longer employed.
So for the retail sector and others to assume they are satisfying an activist group, truly addressing an honest concern or hiding behind a firewall created by an audit, their efforts are sorely misplaced.
It’s nice to be concerned, even more honorable to show that concern and urge others to share.
But when it is driven to the point that food is no longer affordable, when there is no return on investment, when there is no documentable evidence of greater safety or sustainability than the almost perfect record that this system created, then what are we doing?
Have marketers and customers divined a system in which more ancillary costs drive food prices? Are agricultural inputs less than the cost of government imposed regulations and customer imposed mandates?
For the fresh fruit and vegetable industry a tipping point is being reached in that the family farmer that everybody allegedly wants to protect becomes a historical element that we wax poetically about.
Producers were in the pot simmering.
Eighteen forms of food safety audits, multiple definitions of sustainability by those in areas or businesses that were not able to sustain themselves; numerical targets that ignore needs determined by analysis; PTI, GTIN, GlobalG.A.P., HACCP, SAI Global, GMPs and BMPs.
I believe that simmering pot is now boiling.
What’s wrong with having an FDA certified program for food safety that is harmonized for a vast number of similar producers rather than a plethora of audits, each with a minor difference that seemingly creates a need?
And what’s wrong with uniting behind the United Fresh Produce Association effort on sustainability that creates a story with documentation on what producers and other suppliers are doing?
Presently there are too many solutions looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.
It seems to me we need to re-examine what we are doing to ourselves.
Can United Fresh or the Produce Marketing Association create a forum for this discussion? Previous efforts have led to a pendulum swing without a solution.
Have the concepts of balance and real need been lost?
Joel Nelsen is president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.
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