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Pundit’s Mailbag — USDA Opposes
Current ANSI Effort To Define Sustainability

I am a food industry environmental lawyer and love your writing, which I only recently discovered at a conference in California.

In particular, you’ve done a stellar job of covering the “hot news” and public debate in the ANSI sustainable ag standard… In case you did not see this while you were digging into the salsa-salmonella-scare issues, attached is a letter USDA sent and some press about it.

Since your last post on ANSI etc., was weeks ago, this might be good grist for your mill. I hope to have the opportunity to meet and look forward to see more pithy writing.

Thomas P. Redick
Global Environmental Ethics Counsel

Well a hat tip to Tom Redick for passing along this most crucial document. Our extensive coverage of sustainability has included pieces here, here, here, here, here and here, addressing the efforts of Scientific Certification Systems to control a process that would ultimately lead to an ANSI standard for sustainability not only for produce but for all crops including biofuels.

For reasons both pragmatic — the SCS vision basically sees organic as defining sustainability — and moral — SCS has tried to control this process and has attempted to give a Hobson’s Choice to industry members — either participate in a process SCS dominates or don’t participate at all — the industry has overwhelmingly opposed the effort by SCS. The only question has been: What is the best way to oppose it… participation or active opposition?

This letter is very significant because it throws the weight of the United States government against the process. Since the ANSI process requires consensus, it is difficult to perceive that ANSI would endorse a standard for sustainable agriculture that is actively opposed by the USDA.

Although SCS might hold out hope that a President Obama would see the situation differently, it might not be that simple.

In fact, the letter claims that the SCS proposal actually deviates from the law, as back in 1990 Congress passed and the President has already signed a bill containing a definition of sustainable agriculture:

The term ‘‘sustainable agriculture’’ means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long-term…
(A) satisfy human food and fiber needs;
(B) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends;
(C) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
(D) sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
(E) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

The letter contains a number of critiques of both the SCS proposal and the process that is being shepherded by The Leonardo Academy, which is the group SCS pays to administer the effort.

Fundamentally the letter points out that the process cannot be the open and representative process promised by ANSI if the people who actually practice sustainable agriculture every day, all across the country, are not represented.

This letter is a big deal. The way things are advancing, it looks like one day ANSI will have to either accept or reject a proposal from The Leonardo Academy. One imagines that scene in the movie Miracle on 34th Street in which a judge has to decide if the man is really Santa Claus. When a shrewd lawyer gets the US Postal Service to deliver the Santa Claus letters to the man, the judge says that if the US Postal Service, a branch of the US government, recognizes this man as Santa Claus, the court was not going to argue.

We suspect there is a shrewd lawyer working the sustainability issue a s well. Many thanks to Tom Redick for bringing this document to the attention of the industry.

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