Joel Nelsen
Joel Nelsen

In June, the United Fresh Produce Association, with funding from Bayer Crop Science, released a Sustainability Guide & Self-Assessment tool for producers. It was developed with input from a diverse group of industry members who worked together to create a tool for suppliers that tells their story. It is a combination of opinion, science, fact and emotion.

But three months later, the silence is deafening.

The guide was intended to be a tool to demonstrate that producers exercise sound judgment and employ environmentally sensitive practices to create a bountiful supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was designed to create a pathway in which producers could evaluate their practices and determine if in fact their hyperbole and emotional responses to challenges could be documented.

Internally it was challenged, and in some cases attacked as not being good enough. It wasn’t statistically valid. It didn’t require improved farming practices. It wasn’t audited. It didn’t contain the right content. Externally, it was met with coolness.

Commodity leaders chose not to market it to their respective memberships because they knew their members resented the insinuation that their practices were inferior. The cottage industry of consultants (confusion providers) and auditors wouldn’t accept it because it rendered their marketing approach of creating a false need and thus their business less than necessary.

Retailers failed to grasp it because it challenged the programs created by their consultants. Others chose to ignore it because it limited their ability to be different in the marketplace which was their ultimate objective, not determining supplier sensitivity. Some didn’t grasp it because they felt it was unnecessary.

Activists challenged it because it didn’t offer sufficient targets. They wanted numbers that could be spun to show a lack of improvement and benchmarks that had to be improved upon. Too many didn’t want the marketplace to know about the adaptability, analysis, and education that accompanies the production of fresh fruit and vegetables.

If there was harmonization, if there was a pathway for analysis, and if there was a document that proved the sustainability of practices by the supply side, then how could others make money from the false needs and subjective demands? The answer was they couldn’t.

It was a long process of give and take and it challenged those who sought to make money by creating a false need via subjective ideals. The result was a comprehensive document that, if used, unites most facets of the industry and creates a story that is unparalleled.

Each link of this multifaceted industry should be proud of the efforts employed to move fresh fruit and vegetables from the farm, across the country, and into stores while maintaining the level of quality and freshness that is the envy of the world.

The Sustainability Guide and Self-Assessment tool was not designed to appease the activists nor those who differentiate themselves by denigrating others. It was designed to tell a story about an industry committed to environmental sustainability. It was designed to show that our great industry is more than conscientious about environmental concerns. The produce industry walks the talk.

It’s a tool that deserves reconsideration by industry members. It’s a pathway that if followed will create its own noise because the story is both fascinating and illuminating. I believe we should work together to create that noise and not remain silent as others challenge our innovative and successful practices. The collective effort of our industry to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to dinner tables around the world is a story worth telling.

Joel Nelsen is president and chief executive officer of California Citrus Mutual, a voluntary trade association that represents the interest of California’s citrus growers.