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March 4, 2015

Is Sustainability Your Way of Life?

Current statistics indicate that the typical American uses 160 gallons of water per day in comparison to people in other countries who have access to only two or three gallons per day.  In the United States 426,000 cell phones are retired (not all broken) every day, one million plastic cups are used in airline flights every six hours, two million plastic beverage bottles are used every five minutes and 60,000 plastic bags every five seconds.

What if the entire world consumed resources at the same rate as we do?  Some say our planet could not sustain this and provide all the resources needed to support this level of consumption.  Similarly, how can we feed two billion more people by 2050 without overwhelming the planet?  What role does sustainable agriculture play?

Let’s start with the definition of sustainability. Even now, the word “sustainability” means different things to different people.  According to the Brundtland Commission, sustainability means to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  Agriculture has changed dramatically in the last decades due to increased productivity and use of technologies that have assisted with efficiency.  For example, biotechnology has allowed the use of less environmentally harmful insecticides.

According to the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, increased productivity and efficiency have had many positive effects and reduced many risks in farming, but some practices have also impacted topsoil depletion and groundwater contamination.  In the past two decades, questions related to the role of agricultural practices have been raised through the concept of sustainable agriculture.  This concept is evolving and interpreted by different groups in different ways, which confirms why it is important that agricultural operations are engaged in this discussion.

Sustainability has been a way of life for producers who see it as a way to prosper, grow and remain profitable while preserving resources. Sustainable agriculture is about balancing business decisions to consider environmental health, economic profitability and social responsibility.  It can also play a big role in supporting food security.  When referring to sustainable agriculture, many think of local and organic, but that is not necessarily the case.  Being a small, local organic operation does not guarantee that an operation is sustainable.  Sustainability goes beyond that.  Sustainability can be achieved regardless of the size, location and type of production method.  This was illustrated clearly during a recent webinar hosted by Western Growers’ Science & Technology Department.  This webinar provided an overview of three different sustainability efforts that involve producers of all sizes and different types of operations.

One of the efforts discussed was presented by Allison Jordan, vice president of environmental affairs for the Wine Institute and executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.  The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance was created in 2003 as a result of a partnership between the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers.  The goal was to create a set of environmentally-sound, socially-responsible and economically-viable best practices for all aspects of a vineyard and winery operations, including surrounding habitat and ecosystems, employees and community.  As a result, the 2002 California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing was developed, a very comprehensive document that contains 138 vineyard and 103 winery practices related to sustainability.  Two updated editions were released in 2006 and 2012. Currently, there are 19,000 participating organizations representing 75 percent of the wine grape producers in California, and since 2010 about 14 percent have gone through a certification process.  This effort is by far one of the best ones in agriculture communicating how growers support sustainability.

Similarly, Joe Browde, senior associate for SureHarvest, discussed the California Almond Sustainability Program.  This program started in 2008 with five modules addressing irrigation management, nutrient management, air quality, energy efficiency and pest management.  This year, three additional modules have been added to include financial management, ecosystem management and workplace/communities.  Lessons learned from the winegrowing industry have been very valuable in moving this effort forward.  In 2014, a report about this program was released and currently there are more than 1,000 participants taking part in this Initiative.  The information gathered during the implementation of this program has been very valuable in implementing best practices and measuring sustainability performance.  This program continues to evolve and promises to promote the sustainability of the almond sector in California.

The last effort was explained by Kathleen Phillips, supply chain sustainability manager for Greener Fields Together and an advisor for PRO*ACT.  She brought to the discussion the perspective of a distributor and foodservice entity.  Currently, Pro*Act is focused on telling the story of sustainable agriculture by working with its top 30 suppliers.  To respond to market trends and demands, the firm is focused on capturing what the growers are doing and communicating each story to all their customers.  As Phillips mentioned, local distributors are a top trend and, for business purposes, Pro*Act is putting resources in that arena.  However, she acknowledged that work is needed in particular to improve food safety issues with local farms.

Pro*Act is not the only one looking to benefit from the concept of sustainability.  Others like Walmart and Costco are also advancing their own initiatives.  The bottom line is that distributors, retailers and the foodservice segment are looking for a point of differentiation to promote added value and lasting connections with customers.

Whether your company is involved in any of the sustainability efforts mentioned above or some other programs, it is clear the focus on sustainability is not going away.  Now many are expecting audits and surveys to address sustainability.  Being part of the discussion is important as the concept of sustainable agriculture is evolving and may or may not capture current realities.  Join this conversation by providing your comments and feedback on our blog: