Sustainability and the Big Grower

June 11, 2008 - 08:35

In the past six months, I have had the privilege of working with dozens of farming and handling operations in four countries that are certified under the VeriFlora program, which is fully consistent with the Draft National Sustainable Agriculture Standard for Trial Use that is to be reviewed under the ANSI process. As early adopters, these operations recognized an opportunity to benchmark current sustainability practices, as well as identify new methods that would propel them along the unfolding path of sustainability.

The qualitative and quantitative business outcomes from the certification process vary by operation and are noteworthy, including reorganization of work teams to harness problem-solving capabilities; renewed emphasis on integrated pest management such as the identification and cultivation of beneficial pests; and preferred vendor status with customers.

In most cases, these same businesses have chosen to make public claims to reassure the consumer of their compliance with rigorous social and environmental standards. After all, 50 percent of consumers consider sustainability in selecting products and where to shop for them, according to Information Resources, Inc. (2008).

During the same time frame, I have also had the opportunity to speak with industry members new to the Draft National Sustainable Agriculture Standard and the sustainability framework it provides. In these conversations, a handful of issues are consistently articulated — rarely dispassionately — and ought to give the ANSI subcommittee a solid starting agenda if we are to bear a standard that possesses the legs needed to guide us down the reasoned and innovational path of environmental, social and economic sustainability.

I offer these remarks and remind people that as a placeholder standard, it’s ALL up for discussion.

On Organic

The draft standard recognizes that, in the past decade, agricultural businesses and retailers have invested millions of dollars in organic. Putting organic and sustainable into a common framework is a triple win: Growers who are organic can be recognized. Growers who are not organic can be sustainable. Growers who want to move toward organic have a framework for doing so.

The standard is built on a model of risk reduction with a dose of hardcore reality: Customers won’t tolerate imperfection! The standard recognizes that organic may not be feasible for a particular crop or in a specific region, particularly if alternative technologies don’t yet exist.

After all, for something to be sustainable, it must pass the test of repetition, and if it can’t be repeated over and over again and be economically viable, it’s not, by definition, sustainable.

A bigger question for the floriculture subcommittee relates specifically to applying the current definition of organic to greenhouse production; after all, greenhouse plants are typically grown in peat (not soil) with water-soluble nutrients (not manure or compost), and there is no soil per se to manage. “Organic,” as currently defined, came out of the National Organic Program, which was developed for food and fiber crops — not early-life plants that will live the bulk of their lives in a residential or commercial landscape.

The GMO Question

Less than one percent of the current ornamental horticulture supply is derived from genetically modified seed, but emerging technologies may well offer new, distinctive and desirable varieties.

While there is precedent for applying the precautionary principle to sustainability standards, there is also precedent for taking a technology-neutral stance. The ANSI process offers a vehicle for the thoughtful and rational examination of even the most challenging of issues. We need to figure this one out, and it seems to me the discussion should start by defining what we mean by selective plant breeding through biotechnology.

Economic Sustainability

The three-legged sustainability stool usually consists of environmental, social and economic sustainability. The draft standard embeds economic viability into each element, which may give the impression of diminished importance.

I see a sturdy, four-legged stool that retains product quality while ensuring a robust leg wrapped in economic vitality; after all, what is our industry without that? In fact, as we launch headlong into a recession, survivability is of great concern.

The application of a sustainable agriculture management plan must not only produce measurable environmental and social impacts, but also show up on your P&L — in black!

ANSI and Government Regulation

Fortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that ANSI standards foreshadow government regulation. Much to the contrary: ANSI standards reduce pressure and impetus for government regulations, and federal agencies turn to voluntary consensus standards to avoid using taxpayer dollars to create new standards.

In the face of global competition, societal concerns about the environment, and consumer interest in and confusion about sustainability, the ANSI standards process offers a 100-year-old mechanism that can be used to debate and frame sustainability, and then assess conformance. And it’s all voluntary.

Industry Representation in the ANSI Process

The Leonardo Academy, the ANSI-accredited standards development organization guiding the process, states in its constitution that the standards committee (the voting body) will be made up of individuals representing four user categories: producer, user, environmentalist and general interest.

Industry has ample opportunity to be represented through thoughtful applications in three of the four interest categories: producer (grower, shipper, packer, farmer organization); user (handlers, processors, distributors, manufacturers, wholesalers, importers); general interest (includes any other individual representing an industry not included in one of the above categories).

The more important question for floriculture is how a standards committee made up of people representing not just flowers and plants but also food, fiber and biofuels can fairly vote on issues unique to our industry. For this reason, it is very important that ample ornamental horticultural experts in each of the user categories apply to the standards committee with the goal of securing several seats.

By Industry, For Industry

Standards that affect our industry should be developed with broad input, which is precisely why it is so important to sit at the ANSI table and vet the placeholder draft standard and the sector-specific annexes for cut flowers and potted plants.

While leaders in the cut flower industry in four countries and five growing regions piloted the standard in 2004 and 2005, the potted and bedding plant annexes have been field tested less. A proper vetting requires both concurrent greenhouse field testing and seating expertise at the ANSI table to refine the annex.

If your concern, however, is the presence of NGOs at the table, I urge you to consider the realities of our marketplace. For better or for worse, NGOs are an undeniable stakeholder group to both business and consumers — ask any major retailer! The ANSI process recognizes this fact and provides a forum in which “compromised good” can prevail, but this will only happen if you are there.

A Realistic Point of Entry

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. The goal of the standard is to encourage movement along a sustainability continuum while stimulating social, environmental, product-quality and economic performance.

Any standard — academic, horticultural or otherwise — has to have a minimum set of criteria, along with a mechanism to stimulate advancement. Entry-level requirements, tiers of performance and success indicators are all up for discussion. If you have experience with standards development and performance metrics, your insights will be particularly valuable when this portion of the standard is vetted.

When Scientific Certification Systems contributed the draft standard to the public domain, it stepped out of the driver’s seat. First an author, then a shepherd, now just another stakeholder.

The standard sits in the public domain, and anyone can use it. This is transparency.

Labor and the Draft Standard

Every U.S. grower who has sought certification to date has met the social responsibility elements of the draft standard. With the ANSI process, the cut flower and potted/bedding plant subcommittees and the standards committee can review individual requirements and associated language.

As with any other section, if it needs to be refined, come to the table and hone it.

“It’s Too Early for a National Standard!”

The expectant consumer would beg to differ. A cultural shift is taking place, which is driving changes in consumer awareness and behavior as they relate to sustainability. Companies, in turn, are using this trend to make myriad “green” claims, the majority of which have no objective basis and do a disservice to businesses committed to sustainability. The result: Greenwashing and consumer confusion.

When there is consumer confusion about a marketplace claim, like there is about sustainability, ANSI provides a vehicle for bringing stakeholders together to offer clarification and establish a definition.

Change is often unhandy, but I argue that we not only have the opportunity to benchmark current best practices in ornamental horticulture sustainability and promote those in the marketplace, but also to model the “greening” of an entire industry.

The ANSI standardization process will run through April 2010. It’s an open process, so anyone can join a subcommittee at any time.

About The Author

Annie H. Gardiner is executive director of the VeriFlora Sustainability Council, a membership association dedicated to advancing sustainability in floriculture through education and promotion. She can be reached at annie@veriflora.com.

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