As someone who’s read the 100-plus page sustainability draft standards from the Leonardo Academy, I’m glad they’ve been set aside.

Hopefully, the produce industry won’t see anything quite like that when the academy and its sustainability committees next meet.

In mid-January, the Washington, D.C.-based American National Standards Institute rejected a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plea to remove the Madison, Wis.-based Leonardo Academy’s sustainability accreditation status.

But before the ruling, the academy dropped the draft document and pledged to work on a new one with more rounded input.

So what was so bad about the draft document that got USDA and countless produce companies riled up?

For one, Leonardo Academy considered organic agriculture as the ideal for sustainable agriculture.

Another problem was that the standards applied to all crops, whether sweet corn or corn for ethanol.

In addition, the standards were just too broad — advising on labor, community involvement, product purity, etc. — and unrealistic.

The Leonardo Academy says on its Web site: “Our integrated approach makes sustainability very practical for our clients.”

The impractical, discarded draft failed produce companies by that standard.

Bob Gray, Salinas, Calif.-based chief executive officer of Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., Oviedo, Fla., has a stake in sustainability, and noted another disconnect of academic types who lend their hand to sustainability standards.

“Think tank groups tend not to get the economical aspect, and it’s been made worse by the global economic crisis,” he said. “We’re all locked into this economic system, so we have to make these things work economically. We have to have incentives to change behavior. If there’s a cost burden without reward, it won’t get much traction.”

Not all think tank/academia-types are dreamers, though.

Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Sustainable Agriculture Project in the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York, said at the Western Growers annual meeting in November in a sustainability workshop that growers and environmental groups have more common goals than they acknowledge.

“We’ve got to keep farmers on the land or it becomes car habitat with more congestion and pollution,” he said.

Another key point, Gray said, is being open-minded about processes and where companies are on a sustainability timeline.

“It’s about doing the right thing,” he said, “not doing things right.”

A handful of Leonardo committee members are also members of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which is composed of nongovernmental organizations, trade associations, suppliers and buyers who are working to develop benchmarks outlining sustainable practices.

One of them, Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said to be fair to Leonardo, the draft was just that and was designed to be debated and modified.

Fair enough.

But in the end, Giclas said, the draft was simply too controversial and unwieldy to be retooled.

Jeff Dlott, president and chief executive officer of SureHarvest, a sustainability consulting and information systems company based in Soquel, Calif., said the stewardship index group can make quicker decisions than the Leonardo group, so there’s hope that its recommendations can play a large role in what Leonardo does.

“We have a blank slate now,” he said, referring to the discarded draft.

Giclas said the stewardship index plans a big April meeting and hopes to bring some fresh ideas to the next scheduled Leonardo sustainability standards meeting in May.

The produce industry should rest a little easier knowing that leading minds and organizations should have a much larger role in crafting the next sustainability draft through their involvement in the stewardship index and Leonardo Academy meetings.

We should have confidence they’ll do the right thing.

Stake a claim in new sustainability standards
Greg Johnson