AMSTERDAM — A pilot sustainability and certification system for fruits and vegetables created by the Dutch foundation MPS may be expanded to the U.S. fruit and vegetable market next year.

“(European) retailers want it already,” said Theo de Groot, chief executive officer of MPS.

The MPS-ABC system — described as a type of sustainability performance indicator — is based on the concept of steady improvements by many growers, said Ronald van den Breevaart, manager of sales and marketing for MPS. Honselersdijk, The Netherlands-based MPS is a nonprofit foundation that measures horticulture sustainability.

Dutch sustainability system looks at U.S. opportunity

Ronald van den Breevaart

About 4,000 producers of cut flower and ornamental nurseries participate in MPS sustainability audit programs in 55 countries, van den Breevaart told a group of U.S. journalists and professionals participating in The Sustainability Initiative sponsored by the Dutch government. MPS has had nursery and floriculture participants in the U.S. for several years and has about 23 U.S. growers in the program.

MPS expanded its focus from plants and flowers to fruits and vegetables this year. In the Netherlands, seven companies are certified for MPS-Fruit & Vegetables and the top label Vita Certa, MPS spokeswoman Anja Kodde said. She said MPS is considering offering the fruit and vegetable program in the U.S. in 2011.

Sandy Herring, Massachusetts-based East Coast coordinator for MPS, said U.S. growers of potted plants and bedding plants can get valuable feedback from the MPS program.

“To me the best benefit I hear from the growers that have decided to go into the program is that the MPS system provides them with management tools,” she said. “It is much more than a certification that hangs on your wall because it makes you feel good or makes you feel bad because you spent too much time and money on it,”

A series of reports that come out every quarter allow growers to compare their inputs with growers who produce similar varieties in similar environmental zones all over the world.

“You can study the reports with your management team to say what we can do to reduce our use of crop protection agents, for example,” she said.

Herring said MPS is beginning to look at retail applications that will allow buyers to look at the combined MPS scores of their growers while protecting the confidentiality of each grower’s results.

Herring said that the MPS ABC program measures the inputs of waste, water, fertilizer, crop protection agents and energy. After MPS ABC certifications, she said other certifications are available. Those include MPS SQ, or socially qualified or MPS GAP for Good Agricultural Practices.

“It is entirely up to growers if they want to continue with more programs or stop with MPS ABC,” she said.

Dave Jones, sales manager with Battlefield Farms of Rapidian, Va., said the 40-acre potted plant greenhouse firm recently signed up with the MPS program. Jones said he feels the MPS program will allow the firm to see where it stands and where it can make improvements. He said MOS offered advantages over competing certification systems for horticulture in terms of costs and reporting requirements.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public relations for Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said she was not familiar with the MPS program and said the PMA supports the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which is an ongoing project aiming to develop sustainability measures.

Means said it would be ideal for the industry for a common measuring system to be in place to avoid duplication of efforts.

Tim York, president of Salinas-based Markon Cooperative and a leader in the work on the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, said he doubts whether the Dutch system would translate well in the U.S. for fruits and vegetables.

However, York said it is likely that third-party companies, including those now conducting food safety audits, will eventually have a sustainability certification as a component of their services.