National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

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 sustainability. But the value of investing in "sustainable" practices and the worth of creating a marketing presence 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 farming produce label?

The discussion has 30 comments so far.

Jarrod writes the reason behind the question:

I've been in the agriculture business for 20 years, on the ground working with farmers and agronomists. We have made great strides in placing the nutrients where the plant can readily use them. We are trying to maximize every dollar and use it the most efficient way possible.
I'm asking about a label that clearly states it is not organic, but is using less nutrients(fertilizer).

Another member, Richard, responds:

Finding a label that illustrates 'enviro-friendly farming methods' but clearly states that it's not organic will be a challenge at best. This was tried 15-20 years ago to try to educate the public that most farmers, though not organic producers, were using integrated pest management (IPM) practices -- enviro-friendly methods intended to preserve eco-balance by most efficient, and hopefully reduced, applications of pesticides. 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 the point Richard makes, there is much truth. There is no identity for sustainable relative to organic. Consumers know the "organic" label, and for a variety of reasons they will pay more for organic USDA-certified 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, and any attempt to "certify" such food should be considered an ill-considered waste of money.

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" farming practices.

Because of cost and confusion, retailers should not be involved in setting their own standards for sustainable growing methods.

I think a "sustainably grown" U.S. Department of Agriculture certification/label should be a goal for our major trade associations during the next decade. Determining the parameters of what "sustainable" means will be a matter of debate, of course. I think that in the end. a "sustainably grown" certification will result in enhanced transparency. Consumers who buy USDA-certified sustainable produce will see the inputs applied to the produce and the  "continuous improvement" plan for each farming operation.

Under the sustainable certification model, 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. With the recent Stanford University study finding no substantial nutrition or food safety advantage to organic, there appears to be an opportunity for sustainable farming methods to step into the gap in the public consciousness.

Here is a poll question about the issue:

Would USDA certification/labeling of "sustainable" farming practices for fresh produce bring value to the supply chain and to consumers? Why or why not?

I think it is time for a USDA certified "sustainably grown" label. What's your view?