It may be difficult to comprehend why the success story of the Peruvian asparagus industry would fall under as much scrutiny as it is now.

But it may be only the beginning of a withering examination of retail sustainability standards for fresh produce suppliers.

A recent headline in the United Kingdom’s online version of The Guardian read: “How Peru's wells are being sucked dry by British love of asparagus.”

What would warrant such a headline?

After all, growth in U.S. imports alone of Peruvian asparagus has rocketed from $25 million in 2005 to $161 million in 2009. Isn’t growing asparagus better than growing opium, for goodness sake?

The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service has reported this month that Peruvian asparagus production is predicted to rise 6% to 330,000 metric tons this year and exports are projected to rise to by 9% to 250,000 metric tons.

Asparagus acreage in Peru now totals close to 70,000 acres, the USDA reports. This is a feel good story, right?

“Due to mild temperatures and almost non-existent rainfall that prevent asparagus from entering a dormant stage, Peru is one of the few countries where high quality asparagus is harvested year-round,” the USDA brightly reports.

The USDA FAS further sings praises the story of asparagus development in Peru: “Sound economic policies which resulted in remarkably strong economic growth, investments in agriculture and land consolidation were able to reshape Peruvian agriculture into a modern, high technology and market driven industry,” the agency said in a September report.

“This process occurred almost exclusively on the coast and asparagus producers have been the most active players and have benefited the most from it. This consolidation has made modern agriculture profitable, attracting investment from other sectors of the economy, such as mining and fisheries, as well as foreign sources. Investors were drawn to asparagus due to high profitability and a fairly stable foreign demand.”

Asparagus in Peru provides a lot of dollars for growers, exporters, importers retailers – and a lot of tender green asparagus for U.S. consumers. What is possibly wrong with this picture?

There is a hint of the issue in the USDA FAS report; “The Ica region (south of Lima) is undergoing a severe water scarcity that may hamper the viability of the agricultural sector as a whole,” the USDA FAS report said.

The Guardian piece delves deeper:

“Asparagus grown in Peru and sold in the UK is commonly held up as a symbol of unacceptable food miles, but a report has raised an even more urgent problem: its water footprint.”

More: “The study, by the development charity Progressio, has found that industrial production of asparagus in Peru's Ica valley is depleting the area's water resources so fast that smaller farmers and local families are finding wells running dry. Water to the main city in the valley is also under threat, it says. It warns that the export of the luxury vegetable, much of it to British supermarkets, is unsustainable in its current form.”

The issue raised, then, is the “water footprint” of a fresh produce crops as it relates to “sustainability.”

The Guardian story confirms this: “Competition for diminishing global water resources is emerging as one of the most pressing concerns for business as well as development organizations. Leading retailers have told the Guardian privately water shortages in the areas where they source fresh fruit and vegetables out of season is top of their list of priorities when they check how sustainable their businesses are,”

In the report by Progressio, titled “Drop by drop,” the group suggests buyer take part of the blame.

“Alongside this failure of public policy and public institutions, responsibility is also shared by the private sector, where investors, insurers and purchasers have failed to take due diligence to ensure that the businesses they support exploit natural resources in a way which is sustainable. Of real concern is the failure of existing lending safeguards and market standards to flag, question or deal with the water impacts of a water dependent industry which is overexploiting a rapidly dwindling and limited water resource in one of the driest places on earth. Such standards and safeguards are specifically designed to ensure that economic development is sustainable –good for the environment and the poor.”

Later, Progressio states…

“The research provides convincing evidence that the market is a powerful driver of change in Peru’s agro-export sector. However, it also shows that existing market standards fail to adequately consider the sustainability of water resource use. Specifically, we found that the failure of standards such as GLOBALG.A.P. and supermarkets’ own standards, as well as the IFC’s Performance Standards, in relation to water resource use and its impacts, whether through design or lack of compliance, have contributed to the social and environmental problems documented. We strongly recommend that these standards are reviewed and revised to ensure that they only reward production which exploits water resources in a genuinely sustainable way."

So banks, exporters, retail buyers and sustainability standard makers are all being called on the carpet for their shortcomings. The story of Peruvian asparagus is a timely reminder that “feel-good” strategies for sustainability scores and measurements will inevitably come with criticism if they are found to be lacking. Taking responsibility for the whole world is a big undertaking.

Who will be the retailer who won’t stock Peruvian asparagus out of concern whether asparagus is a “sustainable” crop? That retailer that will disappoint his consumers looking for asparagus and hurt his competitive position in the market. On the other hand, the think tank crowd will be well pleased.