What, Where and How?
Since our last issue, the sheer volume of information — and, in some cases, mis-information — published on the subject of sustainability in this industry has been nothing short of staggering. A lot of fact, mixed with interpretation, has led to increased confusion as to what sustainability is, what role it can play in our business and personal lives, why you should consider becoming sustainable, how to implement a sustainability program and what, if any, are the benefits or liabilities of sustainability.
We think this subject will continue to be a major topic and that sometime in the near future, every business in our industry will have to deal with the issue of sustainability on multiple levels. Everything from acquisition of input materials, production techniques and human-resource management to sales, marketing and customer relations is beginning to be impacted by the topic of sustainability. Therefore, we thought it prudent to attempt to clear up some of the mystery of this increasingly important and complex issue.
One way to start down the path of demystifying this issue is to correct four of the most common misconceptions of the requirements of sustainable agriculture:
Now, let's look at the positive aspects of sustainability and how it can benefit your business. Broadly stated, sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs while enhancing the health of the ecosystem. Specifically to your business, it means that every technique you employ to operate your business must enhance the opportunity to increase the viability of your company, including sales, profits and value; provide for the needs of future generations — creating continuity and longevity — all while increasing the health of the ecosystem.
Individual sustainable actions are specific to each business and based on the circumstances influencing that specific operation. Sustainability requires the ability to repeat over time the business' actions. Only well-managed, financially stable organizations can accomplish this. For example, an action that may be very beneficial to the environment but reduces the product quality below that demanded by the customers or increases the cost of production — resulting in an unacceptable selling price or unacceptable profit margin — is not a sustainable action. The following is a brief, general definition of the seven elements that you must embrace to make your business sustainable:
Crop production. Building and maintaining a healthy agro-ecosystem through "best practices," including immediate discontinuation and replacement of chemicals deemed extremely toxic by the World Health Organization, except those with no viable alternative. Replacing moderately toxic chemicals over time (as new products or practices are developed). Increasing the use of biologicals coupled with an efficient IPM program is also beneficial.
Ecosystem management and protection. Protecting the surrounding environment by reducing or eliminating chemicals, waste and by-products you may introduce into the environment through runoff or other means.
Resource conservation and energy efficiency. Conserving the amount of water you use for irrigation. Using the most economical source of energy and most efficient methods of heating, cooling and lighting. Quantifying and understanding your carbon footprint. Reducing the use of polymers and paper/cardboard products.
Integrated waste management. Employing waste disposal methods that include composting and/or recycling of organic and media waste. Reuse or recycling of container and polymer waste. Recycling of paper and cardboard waste. Proper disposal of nonagricultural and hazardous waste.
Fair labor practices. Ensuring a clean, safe work environment for all employees and that all state and federal labor regulations are met. Ensuring that all rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution are extended to all citizen and noncitizen employees.
Community benefits. Supporting the community through employment, purchasing procedures and participation in local organizations. Analyzing the impact on the community of expansion or changes to the agricultural organization.
Product quality. Establishing the highest production quality standards and ensuring proper handling to guarantee the end user receives the best product possible.
So that, in a nutshell, is an overview of sustainable production. A sustainability program does not have a beginning or end; it is an ongoing process that seeks to measure continuous improvement in these seven areas. Most plant production organizations are already employing some level of "best practices" in one or more of these seven categories. Analyzing and organizing them into a sustainability plan is the next logical step.
Once that is complete, you will be ready to receive verification and recognition for your success in developing and implementing a true sustainability production plan by applying for certification in compliance with a sustainability standard such as VeriFlora. Successful application demonstrates a high level of commitment to the success of your employees, customers and ownership along with a high regard for the community and environment.
We're adding a new feature entitled "Expand Your Knowledge." In each issue, we'll give you links to articles associated with various topics related to sustainability that explore these elements in detail.