Group developing metrics program for produce

January 16, 2009

A group of produce buyers, shippers and industry trade associations are developing a verifiable sustainability index for the produce industry. The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops is made up of all the stakeholders in the produce industry, including non-government organizations, suppliers, industry trade associations and buyers, said Tim York, president of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative and one of the collaborators on the project.

Sustainability is a good goal, but it lacks a definition. Groups such as The Leonardo Academy are working on a practices-based definition, and while the produce industry is included in that group’s efforts, it’s really designed for any market, including consumer packaged goods and manufacturing. The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops is designed by the produce industry and includes all of the stakeholders early on.

“What we’re focusing on is specialty crops,” York said. “It’s very much inspired by what the California Association of Wine Grape Growers did.”

The wine grape group developed a measuring tool for its growers that identifies a number of practices and how they’re implemented

“This effort is different in that we’re not trying to focus on practices, instead we’re trying to focus on the aspects that we want to measure,” said John Kaplan, senior policy specialist for the National Resource Defense Council and one of the organizers of the index group.

The program is metrics, not standards, driven. That’s really the difference between the index and other sustainability initiatives, such as The Leonardo Academy, York said. The index would provide a measurable, verifiable standard that would apply to the entire produce supply chain. That will create a benchmark baseline that will allow growers to measure themselves against other growers.

“At least we’re laying a groundwork for how we’re going to measure it in the future,” York said.

The metrics are still being developed, but a preliminary set of topics has been put together by the steering group. They’ll cover farm production, distribution, foodservice, processing and retail sustainability. Each section will have a dozen or so issues to measure, with some

“I think a lot of people in the industry are feeling the need to be able to document the progress that’s been made to improve sustainability,” Kaplan said. “Improved sustainability performance can result in improved bottom-line performance. It’s better for the environment and better for the bottom line.”

A timeline hasn’t been set for the metrics and the steering group hasn’t said how the audit process would work. The program is being developed with the input of technical and scientific experts, but it will be designed to be fluid so it can adapt to scientific findings and applications in the field.

“I think we can cover a lot of ground in the next six to eight months,” Kaplan said. “What we’re envisioning is putting together the actual metrics and it’s likely that different users will use them in different ways.”

The steering group has worked hard to include all the major stakeholders. About 40 companies are involved in the program, “And that’s just by word of mouth,” York said. One of those companies is Wal-Mart, which has committed itself to sustainable standards through supply chain efficiency and other programs. Leaders of the program include Kaplan from the National Resources Defense Council and Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology for Western Growers Association. While an environmental defense group may not seem like the most likely ally for growers and processors, Kaplan said the council has worked with agricultural groups in California for years, and ag and environmental groups need each other.

“We believe there’s a large sphere of common interest,” he said. “Framers need environmental groups as states like California become more urban, and environmental groups realize that as farms go away urban sprawl moves in.”

“I think it’s important for diverse constituents to come to the table,” Kaplan said.