National Editor Tom Karst I have received a couple of thoughtful responses on my previous post on the concept of a USDA-created standard and/or certification for sustainability.The following letter, from Alyssa Houtby of California Citrus Mutual, spell out in clear detail the objections to such a plan.
Dear Mr. Karst:
In response to your opinion piece regarding a USDA standard for sustainability, there is absolutely no gain to been seen by the produce industry, particularly for the producer and shipper sectors, by creating a standard for sustainability. Inevitably, a USDA certification will only fuel retailer demands and cost the producer time and money for little, if any, value.
You state “growers and the entire supply chain should be able to add value to their produce without adding as much cost as strictly organic growing methods.” You strike a comparison between the success experienced by the organic sector resulting from the USDA certified organic label and the potential for the value of a similar certification for sustainably grown produce. However, the fundamental difference between the two is the complexity in defining sustainability and the multitude of issues related to developing a set rubric that adequately supports the work of the entire produce industry.
Sustainable farming, by definition and in practice, is very site-specific. Farming techniques vary enormously between commodities, geography, and available resources. As science and technology have advanced, in order to remain a viable operation, so have growers. Advancement in irrigation methods, pest management, and crop protection have dramatically increased on-farm efficiencies that benefit the grower’s bottom line while protecting environmental quality.
You are correct in your statement that determining the parameters for what “sustainable” means would be cause for debate. In reality, though, it is safe to say that every farmer, to a degree, is sustainable. Those who aren’t must answer to the natural course of the free market system and Mother Nature.
You state, “Because of cost and confusion, retailers should not be involved in setting their own label standards for sustainable growing methods.”
It is poly-annish to believe that retails and activists won’t have their seat at the table to develop this standard. The result will be a standard that does not accurately capture or give due credit to the existing efforts by the industry.