Sustainability — Shaping Tomorrow

December 11, 2007 - 13:01

As a preface, let me make a few points very clear. I believe that:

  • as good stewards of the earth, growers need to be caretakers of our resources, including water, soil and air.
  • as good human beings, we need to ensure that our workers are respected; have the tools, training and environment to keep them safe and productive; and are paid a fair wage for the work they perform.
  • it is essential that we simultaneously be profitable and sensitive to the ecological needs and social responsibility goals of sustainability.
  • we have a moral responsibility to implement sustainable production practices and continuously improve in these areas and, secondly, an economic incentive to communicate our successes to consumers to get credit for our efforts.
  • consumers may or may not be aware of what sustainable products or processes are or should be, but we should still undertake these efforts because they are the right thing to do.
  • we need a voluntary standard specific to our industry, against which we can benchmark, so everyone is measured and compared on the same practices and conditions, creating a path toward continuous improvement.
  • organic production and practices are a level of sustainability, not an independent standard. From both a production and economic standpoint, organic isn’t always desirable or achievable.

I share my beliefs because they shape the way I view sustainability and the efforts and direction our industry should take to become involved in sustainable practices.

I recognize that my perspective may be different from yours and others’ within and outside our industry.

 

Not Entirely New Grounds

Many growers in the United States and other countries that supply the U.S. market have already been practicing good agricultural practices as a normal course of business. In some cases, we’ve had additional guidance from federal, state and local government agencies in restricting the use or application of pesticides and chemicals, mandating water runoff collection, setting the minimum wages we could pay our workers, as well as how they could be treated and protected, among other edicts. We also had a profit incentive for embracing these practices. Yes, there was a cost to implement, but in most cases, we found that there were cost savings and increases in worker productivity.

I think that many growers were investing in and implementing sustainable business practices, though until recently, no one commonly used the term “sustainable” or even knew what it was. Is there room for improvement and taking our efforts to a higher level? Were some growers not being sensitive to these practices? Clearly, the answer is yes, and those producers need to get up to speed in these areas. And growers who are achieving sustainability should get both recognition and preferences in the marketplace for their efforts.

 

Measuring Sustainability

It’s been difficult in the past to measure a grower’s level of compliance to sustainability practices because there was no standard against which to benchmark. And, as we’ve seen, especially in the European market, in the absence of a recognized and industry-accepted standard, it’s fair game for anyone to develop their own standards, whether to fit the standards creator’s personal goals and agenda, or for economic gain. Nature abhors a vacuum, and without an industry-accepted standard, any retail chain or organization can make up their own rules and impose them upon their trading partners, creating confusion in the marketplace, especially at the consumer level.

A few years ago here in the United States, a retailer approached a for-profit certification company, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), to develop a standard for cut flowers and, later on, potted plants. One of the major goals for this effort was to develop a certified “label” that could be used as a marketing tool to their customers; this label was Veriflora. SCS then approached a core group of domestic and off-shore cut-flower and potted-plant growers to get their input as the standard was being developed and, once it was finalized, certify them.

SCS submitted a draft of their standards to the nonprofit American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the same group that wrote the container standard to measure all containers based on dimension, not volume. Once ANSI accepts a standard, it becomes the criteria against which any certification company or label can compare itself against.

 

Challenges and Concerns

The draft standard that was submitted to ANSI went far beyond floriculture in its scope, and therein lies the challenge and my concern. The submitted draft was the Standard for Food, Fiber and Biofuel Crop Producers and Agricultural Product Handlers and Processors, of which floriculture crops are a very small part. The products covered included produce (fruits and vegetables), row crops (e.g. corn, wheat, soybeans), fiber (e.g. cotton and wool) and biofuel crops (e.g. corn used to produce ethanol), and there’s been discussion to include cattle, dairy and aquaculture as part of the scope. The way the draft was written, there are a core set of standards that apply to all agriculture crops, with annexes that address crop specific guidelines and practices.

I believe in voluntary standards. But I have some initial concerns and reservations about the draft that was submitted to ANSI:

  • It’s too broad in its scope. Many of the core guidelines and measurements have applicability to edible food crops, and these standards for food crops would necessarily be more stringent (especially regarding food safety and traceability standards) than what we would consider necessary for nonedible floriculture crops, but there’s no distinction, and, as submitted, we’d have to comply with the stricter edible standards.
  • The standards expressed in the draft were developed by SCS without the benefit of input from the major trade associations that represent the various covered crop segments — OFA for bedding plants, Produce Marketing Association for produce and floral, FNGLA for foliage crops — nor from major producers in these segments who would need to comply with these standards.
  • While I believe that special-interest NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) should have input into the standard, their representation in this review process is proportional to that of the producers who would sit on the standards committee.

SCS has contracted with the Leonardo Academy, an ANSI-certified standards development organization, to shepherd and facilitate the three-year draft-review process (see www.leonardoacademy.org/Projects/ansi.htm) to view the proposed draft and presentations made at the kickoff meeting in October, and for more information on the review process). The process is just beginning, and our industry has the opportunity to provide input and critique into the proposed draft to a “to-be-appointed” standards committee that has the power to make changes to it. The major floral trade associations, namely OFA, Produce Marketing Association (for both floral and produce), SAF, ANLA and FNGLA, are taking the lead in monitoring and representing their constituencies at these meetings, and I’d recommend that you contact them with your comments and concerns after you read the draft.

 

All Aboard

As I stated earlier, I firmly support sustainability both as a concept and in practice, and I think a voluntary, industry-wide national standard is essential in bringing our industry into compliance with realistic and measurable benchmarking goals and guidelines. That said, we need a standard that makes sense for our industry and is specific enough to address our products and production/logistics methods. Perhaps the ANSI draft is the framework we can use to develop these floriculture standards, but it’s going to need input and involvement from our industry to ensure that the review and change process allows the standards and guidelines to be representative of our industry’s specific needs and opportunities — not impacted by other agriculture crop standards that don’t apply to us.

The sustainability train is leaving the station. You can be on the train and be proactive about the development of standards and certification programs that embrace sustainability, or you can stand on the platform and wave at the train as it pulls out. It’s your choice.

About The Author

Stan Pohmer is president of Pohmer Consulting Group in Minnetonka, Minn. He can be reached at spohmer@pohmerconsulting.com or (952) 545-7943.

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