Tom Karst, National Editor The long and grinding effort to find the value of “sustainability” in the market continues.
There seems to be no end to the effort to talk about the importance of sustainability and to create metrics to measure it on the farm.
But the value of investing in sustainable practices and the ultimate worth of creating a marketing message aimed at consumers is still under debate.
One active discussion in the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group was this question: What does everyone think about a sustainable growing produce label?
The discussion had 30 comments as of Sept. 12.
The premise of the question is this: Great progress has been made in reducing pesticide and fertilizer use over the years.
Why not create a label that trumpets those gains to consumers, while at the same time clearly stating that no organic claims are being made?
Several responses to the question said that creating a “environmentally friendly” label will be challenging. One member said, “Every farmer does it, but illustrating that to the consuming public with a label doesn’t translate into increased sales, only more informed customers.”
To that point, there is much truth. There is no identity for “sustainable” in comparison with the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal.
Consumers know the “organic” label, and for a variety of reasons they will pay more for USDA-certified organic food.
And the market continues to grow. For the second quarter of 2012, the United FreshFacts report show organic vegetable sales were up 14.6% compared with year-ago levels, while organic fruit sales were up 20.3% for the quarter.
While there is no government-sanctioned definition of “local,” that hasn’t seemed to make a difference to consumers. Consumers will buy locally grown foods. In my view, any attempt to certify such food should be deemed an ill-considered waste of money.
However, a more formal standard is needed for a “sustainably grown” label. Some have suggested the lines between conventional and organic produce will eventually blur.
Perhaps that day would come sooner with a USDA certification of “sustainable” growing practices.
Because of cost and confusion, retailers should not be involved in setting their own label standards for sustainable growing methods.
Retailers have created enough confusion already relating to food safety standards and third-party audits. There would be only skepticism and doubt if two to three rival retailers have competing “earth-friendly” labels.