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Groups moves sustainability issues to front burner

Published on December 24, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on January 21, 2011 6:39AM


For the Capital Press

BILOXI, Miss. -- Farmers who think they won the battle over climate change when they stopped the cap and trade bill in Congress now face a related challenge that may be harder to fight: pressure from processors and customers to produce crops in a "sustainable" way.

The USA Rice Federation held a session at its annual conference here on Dec. 9 that highlighted how seriously agriculture is beginning to take this challenge.

The concept of sustainable development has been around since a 1983 United Nations commission outlined its precepts.

Governments and institutions have been trying to apply it to policy ever since, and they are increasingly joined by corporations. Food retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and processors such as Kellogg Co., the cereal giant, are feeling the pressure from environmentally minded customers and governments.

Diane Holdorf, vice president for environmental stewardship, health and safety at Kellogg, explained her company and others now believe that they cannot continue to make products if they do not use fewer resources.

To grow enough food for the 6.8 billion people in the world today already takes more of the earth's resources than are replaced, and to grow the food for 9 billion people in 2050 will take even more, Holdorf said.

The issue came home to Kellogg, Holdorf said, when Australia experienced a drought a few years ago and the company could not source enough rice for production facilities there. In addition, European retailers such as Marks and Spencer want to show customers that their products are sustainably produced, a website called Good Guide is rating products, and France is planning government labels explaining the environmental impact of products, Holdorf said.

To address these concerns, Kellogg in 2005 set a 10-year goal of reducing its energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste per metric ton of food produced by 10 to 20 percent, Holdorf said.

It's not clear what Kellogg and other processors and retailers will expect of farmers, but it is clear they want the farmers to reduce their environmental impact so the products will win consumer acceptance.

USA Rice is already addressing the pressure to improve its efficiency. It released a report showing that since 1987 the rice industry has produced 21 percent more rice per acre while reducing soil loss by 43 percent, water use by 33 percent, energy use by 52 percent and soil methane by 29 percent.

The federation declared that these statistics should be benchmarks against which the industry should be judged in the future.

Two coalitions have already formed to address sustainability challenges in agriculture and food.

The Sustainability Consortium, started with a grant from the Walmart Foundation, has a membership of food companies and is developing a standardized method to evaluate product life cycle information for food, beverage and agriculture products.

The Colorado-based Keystone Alliance, which has a membership mostly of commodity and conservation groups, wants to represent farmers and conservationists in encouraging sustainable practices.

Marty Matlock, an ecological engineer with the University of Arkansas Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability, said that achievements of the next 10 years in research, improved genetics, production practices and technology will help farmers achieve sustainability. He also warned the growers that "if you're only reacting to this change, you're going to go out of business."

Audience reaction to the presentations showed that the pressure for sustainability has renewed some of the oldest conflicts in farming.

"We don't call it sustainable, we call it survival," said Ray Vester, a Stuttgart, Ark., grower. "The only hindering factor in rice sustainability is profitability. We are on the bottom of the economic chain. We don't tell people what we sell our products for."

A California rice farmer added that Kellogg needs to realize that farmers "don't have control over Mother Nature."

Holdorf said Kellogg is trying to figure out how to take those issues into consideration.

So far, farm leaders are trying to address these issues themselves, but as the 2012 Farm Bill approaches, it's not hard to imagine them asking the government for some sort of regulations on sustainability indexes or direct aid to comply with them.

Jerry Hagstrom writes about agriculture from Washington, D.C.


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