Tom Karst, National Editor
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.

Grower-shippers also may be thought of as self-serving if they create their own “green,” “earth-friendly” or “sustainable farming” label. A collective effort is required, I think.

Government seal of approval

Relative to the efforts of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, industry can help craft the metrics that measure sustainability.

But the endgame should be a government seal. 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.

After all, haven’t we heard time and time again that the USDA’s national organic standards, implemented a decade ago, have been a prime impetus for the category’s impressive growth?

Consumers can buy into the standards because they are consistent and everyone plays by the same rules. Shoppers can understand what certification means, if they take time to investigate. More simply, they can look at the USDA seal and intuitively know that it means something.

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.

Naturally, not everyone will want to go through the hoops to earn “sustainably grown” certification.

Still, under the government-sanctioned sustainable growing 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 growing methods to step into the gap in the public consciousness.

Here is a discussion group 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?

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.