Posted: Thursday, December 03, 2009 10:00 AM
Producers, groups respond to growing demand for data
By WES SANDER
A collection of producers, commodity buyers and interest groups is creating a volume of metrics by which the environmental sustainability of farming operations might be measured.
The project, called the Stewardship Index, is a response to the growing demand among buyers for evidence of production techniques that would qualify a commodity's production as sustainable, said Joseph McIntyre, president of the nonprofit Ag Innovations Network, the project's lead organizer.
"It was fairly clear that some stewardship requirements were coming because the supply chain was going to require it," McIntyre said.
The effort was inspired in part by the experiences of producers following the food-safety scares of recent years, McIntyre said. After bacteria was traced to leafy greens grown in California, buyers began imposing haphazard safety requirements on contracted growers.
With the Stewardship Index, stakeholders want to compile a list of agreed-upon farm practices before such haphazard requirements begin showing up in the sustainability arena, McIntyre said.
Under the planned system, growers would voluntarily provide data showing they meet certain metrics on the list. Buyers would use that information to find commodities that fit their markets.
The information would be used only within the supply chain, McIntyre said. The index steers clear of employing a certification standard, he said.
Project participants include producers, buyers, trade associations and environmental groups.
"This tool will be a way to show environmental performance in a better way," McIntyre said. "It just says, if you're going to think about stewardship, here are the things you should measure.
"It's going to give players -- everybody who grows or touches specialty crops -- data," McIntyre said. "We won't have to speculate."
While the idea has percolated for about 18 months, the project is still just beginning, McIntyre said. Stakeholders expect to test the system in a pilot project next year.
"It's right at the beginning," he said. "We don't know exactly what it's going to be."
John Keeling, CEO of the National Potato Council and one of the participants, said he hopes the system will function as a yardstick by which a producer could measure improvement in practices over time.
"We're picking things that are of value and importance to everybody in the supply chain," he said. "It's really kind of a grower decision-making tool."
Environmental and public interest groups: American Farmland Trust, California Institute for Rural Studies, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Organic Center, World Wildlife Fund.
Growers, suppliers and trade associations: DelCabo, FreshSense, Lodi Winegrape Commission, National Potato Council, Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association, Wine Institute.
Buyers and trade associations: Bon Appétit Management Co. Foundation, Compass Group, Food Marketing Institute, Heinz, Markon Cooperative, Sam's Club, Sodexo, SYSCO, Unilever, Wal-Mart, Wegmans.