National Editor Tom Karst
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.

If, aside from monetary gain, the ultimate goal for a sustainable standard is to gain transparency to the consumer base, a USDA label is not the most effective means to the end. Perhaps transparency, not necessarily labeling, has been the fuel driving the organic train. There is no doubt that collectively, conventional agriculture has a history of a shut-door policy in consumer outreach, which has allowed adversaries such at the EWG on the produce side and the likes of PETA on the animal-agriculture side to gain momentum.

But, is a sustainable label a way for conventional agriculture to become more favorable to consumers and narrow the perceived difference between organic and conventionally grown produce? Or will it result in increased pressure from retailers at the financial burden of the grower.

I would argue the latter.

This is simply another opportunity for government, activists, and consumers to dictate how farmers farm. There is enough “producer baby-sitting” going on in the regulatory world without adding a “voluntary” standard to comply with as well.

Let the marketers stick a label on the package if they see value, don’t subject the grower to the copious amount of paperwork and fees to comply with a standard that will inevitably be hijacked by activists anyway.

Why feed into activist demands and perpetuate the issue? It’s anyone’s guess what their next demand will be.


TK: Thanks to Alyssa and others at CCM who had input for providing this strong perspective. One of her comments spoke to the fact that every farmer is sustainable, "to a degree." Agricultural leaders have been working very hard to make this point, and it seems the message falls on deaf ears. My thought is that perhaps a USDA certification of sustainability/transparency would better communicate this reality to consumers.