Greg Johnson, Editor
Greg Johnson, Editor

DALLAS — When sustainability metrics come to the produce industry, I have a strong suspicion they will be tilted more toward business and less toward environment.

That’s not a criticism, nor is it bad for the produce industry.

Growing fresh produce is one of the most sustainable businesses already, although environmental groups are working hard to convince consumers otherwise.

The produce business runs mostly on small margins and economies of scale, so cutting out inefficiencies and waste is good business.

It wasn’t the No. 1 topic of conversation at United Fresh 2012 in Dallas May 1-3, but it’s still on everyone’s minds.

The day before the expo started, a United Fresh committee met on sustainability standards, and while nothing was resolved, attendees said it was productive (it was not open to the media).

Burleson Smith, vice president of environmental affairs and sustainability for United Fresh, said May 2 that the issue remains unsettled.

He said the industry knows it must be flexible with its standards and not just invite more audits.

A May 2 workshop aptly titled “Sustainability in the Real World” touched on how produce companies can make sustainable practices part of efficient business.

Nikki Rodoni, director of sustainability for Gills Onions, and United Fresh sustainability board chairwoman, talked about the company’s award-winning onion waste-to-energy program, which we’ve written about before.

“Sustainability starts with a good business case,” she said.

That’s the heart of this issue for the industry.

Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative Inc., Salinas, Calif., is among the most prominent industry leaders who have worked in developing the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, and he has said many times that sustainability metrics must be specific, measurable and verifiable.

But he also told The Packer in late April that rules must help “growers to understand how to use various metrics and benchmark their progress in a reasonable and practical approach to not only improving sustainability, but enable cost-reduction initiatives that can enhance on-farm profitability.”

Profitability isn’t a word that was prominent in the Leonardo Academy’s latest sustainability report.

It may have been in there, but is anyone really expected to wade through 395 pages to find it? I did my best.

The Madison, Wis.-based group released the latest draft of the report after its April 24-25 annual meeting. It’s what one would expect from environmentalists and academics, although a little less idealistic that previous versions.

The Leonardo standard supports a four-tiered performance measurement system comprised of Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum tiers.

The level of tier granted is determined by third-party verification of scores related to general, environmental, economic and social categories.

In Leonardo’s defense, it dropped the requirement that all agriculture be produced with organic methods.

That was perhaps because growing fresh produce organically is probably less sustainable than conventional when all inputs and productivity are considered, but I doubt Leonardo would ever admit to that.

A few produce companies participate in Leonardo discussions, but more have told me they turned down the group because it’s not serious about keeping produce growing profitable and efficient enough to feed hundreds of millions of people.

Produce industry sustainability is a serious issue, and the industry is going about it in the right way, even if it seems excessively deliberate.

More than ever, produce companies are seeing that sustainability can be good for business. Integrated Pest Management cuts down on chemical inputs. Saving water means saving money. Reducing pesticide use reduces costs and safety issues. Getting more out of the same area of land, and then making sure nutrients are replenished, is a constant goal, and it has been for centuries.

Walter Ram, vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs for The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles, and sustainability board member, said fresh produce “is the poster child for sustainability.”

Not only that, but the industry also feeds people healthful food.

You know, as opposed to sitting in a college town churning out 400 pages of idealistic nonsense.

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