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The Keystone Center’s
Sustainability Initiative
Provides Insights For Produce

Sustainability and social responsibility have been an important focus for us, especially over the past several months. We ran a series of pieces built around an effort to create an industry standard on sustainability utilizing the American National Standard Institute, or ANSI, process:

Sustainability Standard Being Steamrolled — Does A Sustainable Vision Encompass Only Organics?

The Imperative For Action (Part 1)

No Standardization Without Representation (Part 2)

The Produce Industry Strikes Back (Part 3)

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Icon DiMatteo Weighs In On Sustainability Standard

Pundit’s Mailbag — SCS Takes Exception To Analysis of Sustainability Standard

It quickly became clear, however, that the vision being promulgated, which included a highly proscriptive standard to define sustainability across an enormous range of crops from biofuels to fresh produce, was unlikely to ever attract a consensus.

This has led to an industry search for alternative models to use in pursuit of sustainability.

Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative, had provided an intellectual framework for this pursuit in a piece we entitled, A Call For An Industrywide Sustainability And Social Responsibility Initiative.

Then Tim, jointly with Jeff Dlott, President and CEO of SureHarvest, expanded on this topic in an article we entitled, Sustainability Goes Beyond Best Practices. We followed up that piece with an interview with Jeff to see how some of these ideas were playing out in work he has been doing with the wine industry. We call that piece, Sustainability Expert Provides Insights To A Similar Industry.

Another approach being discussed in the industry is being moderated by The Keystone Center and is focused, at least initially, on the wheat, soybean, corn and cotton industries. The effort is called Creating Sustainable Outcomes for Agriculture. You can find the press release announcing the initiative here and you can read the Foundational Context and Principles here.

Here is a slideshow that explains the initiative:

We are going to be speaking to several people involved in this initiative and thought it might be advantageous to start out by speaking with an executive from the Grocery Manufacturers Association who is on the executive committee of the initiative, since the GMA also interacts with supermarkets. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Dr. Jeff Barach
Vice President and Center Director
Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)
Washington, D.C.
Member, Executive Committee
Creating Sustainable Outcomes for Agriculture
The Keystone Center
Keystone, CO

Q: As the produce industry analyzes how to best incorporate sustainability practices into its businesses, we have reached out to others who have expertise in pursuing progressive strategies in complementary fields. Jeff Dlott of SureHarvest provided insight on the innovative sustainability program employed by the wine industry.

Jeff mentioned that he currently participates in the peer review process of the Keystone Initiative for sustainability in agriculture, which is focused on the four program crops — wheat, soybeans, corn and cotton. In terms of acreage, these are very important, but they are much less complicated from a production standpoint compared to most fresh produce crops. Still, Jeff says there will be many lessons that can be shared from the Keystone Sustainability Initiative that will have value to the produce industry. Beyond that, we’re interested to explore what role the produce industry might play as the initiative evolves.

How and why did you become involved in the Keystone Initiative? What does GMA hope to gain with this connection?

A: Our involvement in the Keystone Center’s agricultural sustainability initiative is predicated on GMA’s background in addressing sustainability issues and imperatives facing our members. GMA has its own initiatives related to food processors and retailers. GMA and the Food Products Association (FPA) collaborated with Deloitte Consulting to benchmark what retailers in the industry were doing with sustainability, and to better understand how to balance opportunity and risk. [Editor’s note: You can read Deloitte’s Executive Summary and Full Report here].

We ran a major summit in January 2008, with over 6,000 people attending, to talk sustainability. It was a diverse group of trade associations, individual companies, learning providers, academics, etc. Along with our sustainability effort, we have reported on climate change, water issues and packaging through internal groups at GMA.

Q: How do these GMA initiatives relate to the Keystone Initiative? Are they complementary or overlapping in their goals?

A: The Keystone Initiative, or its working name for now, Creating a Sustainable Outcome for Agriculture, is complementary to what GMA is looking to accomplish. There is no point in duplicating efforts with other groups where we see good alliance-building. GMA is focusing on food retailers and processors. Keystone is focusing on growers down the food chain. We thought it lucrative to form alliances with groups we’re not directly related to. I’ve been a participant at Keystone as a member of its executive team and in working groups. I’m one of the team players because I have a background in biotechnology and agriculture, so I’ve been interfacing others’ objectives and goals for the overall program.

There are folks in leadership roles at GMA who could better inform you of GMA’s positioning. Steve Sibert, Senior VP of Industry Affairs, is the lead person for all our sustainability efforts at GMA.

Q: How did the Keystone Initiative actually come about? Was this an effort by a few leading, influential stakeholders who cultivated strength as word of the program got disseminated?

A: The Keystone Center’s executives had working relationships with agricultural groups, and dialogue got started about the need to create measurable sustainability metrics. The Keystone Center convened the process and orchestrated stakeholder identification based on who would want to be at the table; at the onset they looked to the main commodity groups because they represented a major part of production going on the ground.

Primary stakeholders were targeted, but this is not an exclusive process, rather a collaborative effort. There are other grower organizations that have expressed interest in joining. Membership is initially concentrated on the large commodity crops, but all agricultural groups are being met with to learn from and garner their involvement. It’s not restricted to these four groups [corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton]; this is just how it started out.

Q: What is the Keystone Center’s role? How are decisions made? Are there methods in place to insure a fair and balanced process?

A: The Keystone Center is a neutral, non-profit facilitator; the people driving the initiative are the Executive Committee. [Editor’s note: According to Keystone, the Executive Committee is made up of one representative from each of the four sectors, corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton, and a fifth at large elected by the steering committee. The steering committee is 25 members from different sectors; food and retail, agribusiness, grower organizations, and conservation groups. The structure was determined by the group].

Interested parties came together and agreed to be participants and set up membership principles. The vision is a supply chain initiative, which naturally involves agribusiness, growers, and food and retail consumer-facing organizations. Conservation organizations represent other concerns, environment, health, and socio economics.

Keystone is the facilitator to keep things rolling, but the actual decision-making is done by team work groups, which report to the steering committee that meets a few times a year. Executive Committee top leadership represents members in their sectors. The metrics being worked on are a product of the group, drawn from existing literature, and through contacting other experts.

Q: Has it been difficult to reach consensus?

A: We have diverse interests, but luckily people are working for the common good. In many early on discussions to form the Keystone Initiative, it became quickly apparent that taking on agricultural aspects as a whole was a very complex and broad project. You’re dealing with varied industries and issues. Do you want to stay U.S.-centered or go international? What crops should be included? Do you take on animal agriculture as well as plant agriculture? It is mind-boggling how you would tackle all these areas at once.

Part of the initial activity was determining what do we want to focus on and invest our efforts in, knowing that later we could expand the scope.

Commodity crops were the focus; we needed to start benchmarking and this would prove the simpler task, and we had more information available to start with. We want to benchmark where we are today, compare to the past, and plan forward on how to measure improvements.

Since this is scientific in nature, a major reason why GMA wanted to get involved was to help develop the metrics. The Keystone Center is huge; it brings organizational structure, sets up meetings, helps to facilitate, but it’s not really the brainpower. There’s a wide group of decision-makers. This has to do with the producers, the eventual users, conservation organizations, non-government organizations, industries like ours, individual companies as well as trade associations that represent different sectors.

[Editors note: Entities participating in the initiative include:

Q: I noticed McDonald’s has taken a prominent seat at the table.

A: McDonald’s is smart to get involved. It wants to see how this will play out in the long run, interface between food product companies and consumers. It is looking to see what we need to do at the farm level and translate that into something meaningful to its customers. We must keep that horizon in site because the consumer is judging the impact of sustainability. McDonald’s shows some insight in joining the process early.

Q: What are the main challenges you see in building a sustainable agricultural system?

A: We all want to see a positive impact in agricultural sustainability, water and land use, but that’s just part of it. When we think about future food use — feed, food, fiber — where is this going to come from? How will we meet these needs in the future? Population will be doubling, challenging our current systems of food production. How will we adapt to these new demands in the framework of sustainability?

We can produce more by using up our resources, but collectively we agree this is not a good way to go. We need to put the whole expansion within the framework of sustainability goals. How will we do future farming while meeting and embracing sustainability goals? This is why we are trying to engage farmers at their level.

Q: Is that the structural framework in place through the Keystone Initiative?

A: The way we’re approaching sustainability now, we’re not using the mandate approach from top down, which has occurred in other sustainability efforts — Wal-Mart’s efforts with its suppliers comes to mind. This is an opportunity to come from the bottom up; the performance at the farmer level is the driving impetus here. If they had in their toolbox more ways to measure themselves against the regional average, then they could utilize best practices to move themselves up. Productivity is a driver now. Maybe rainfall is better than using water, for example. When they start to put information into the system and see how they are doing compared to neighbors, they can improve productivity as well as sustainable growing practices.

On more of an academic level, we can develop a sustainability index that sets targets and goals on where commodity groups have gone and are going, looking at wheat, corn, soybeans, and cotton practices on both a regional and national basis, and how can we make an impact. Macro and micro strategies work together. At the grower level, I know where I am in my community and county and then can look at the big national picture. We can have all these farmers making improvements, benchmarking progress through the sustainability index.

Q: How do you get this information? Are participants willing to share their results?

A: A lot of the information to feed in the index comes from government and academic studies, built from available data being mined and granular information that can be assembled. The initiative team is building the index and then it will be peer reviewed.

Q: Is there an opportunity for produce executives to become engaged in the process at this time?

A: Unfortunately produce folks won‘t be involved right up front. What produce folks can do is look at the systems and tools and start to formulate the next step of Keystone’s evolution to minor crops. Push to get involved in the initiative now, so when priorities are formulated for what’s next, they’ll have a voice at the table. The steering committee is open for people to join in and have influence on what transpires in the future. It could easily turn to animal agriculture; that may not occur if produce people are at the table to follow along this path.

Q: Does the produce industry need to get more involved in GMA’s sustainability programs?

A: Our GMA initiatives are more at production and retail level — energy use for processing, affects of climate change, looking at packaging and water use from a manufacturing standpoint, etc. We’re addressing best practices for recycling. From our standpoint, major food companies and retailers have initiatives in the working groups; Kraft, Unilever, Pepsico, McCormick, maybe some of the grain companies.

I don’t see fresh produce people involved, but that’s not to say they couldn’t be involved. They can get on the list of working groups. There is no exclusion on these. Some of the other trade associations are included, so we’re not working at cross purposes. By getting trade groups involved like United Fresh and the association for frozen foods, various industries are not developing whole guidelines that are at cross purposes with other trades. Being on the same track is where we want to be. We don’t want to duplicate efforts or oppose each other. That’s just counter-productive.

For example, we see synergy with the packaging groups, which are addressing industry issues. We see the sustainability packaging coalition has done considerable metrics work and development of principles. We don’t need to repeat that; we’re building strategic alliances. There is no need to reinvent sustainable agriculture. Let’s join strategically encourage that activity to continue and foster. It would be silly for us to reinvent rather than adopt sound practices.

The Keystone Initiative is expanding the steering committee; they have the growers, the conservation organizations and industry organizations, and that’s the opportunity for produce business to get involved.

Q: What’s happening going forward?

A: Keystone has computer systems at the grower level they’ll be piloting in the fall, several hundred folks to evaluate grower tools and see how to improve them. The other part is the sustainability index for commodity crops, pulling in the data from different resources to benchmark the past and see what needs to be in the future. The task can be daunting; crops have different requirements based on growing areas and other factors.

We’re very pleased to be part of the initiative that will have an important impact on the future. This is a task supported by 30 different groups that are participating in it now. We have an alliance to build a well-recognized initiative.

Q: Is the government involved?

A: Government representatives have been at the table a couple of times in an advisory role as well as a listening role, keeping up with what is going on, but without membership status.

Sometimes industry sets standards and they turn into regulations, but we’re a long way from that occurring. That could be one end point. Sometimes the government appreciates the industry taking the lead. If you wait for government, things often get bogged down and may never get done.

We have to build incentives for farmers to want to take steps forward in sustainability. Unless productivity aspects are there, you can’t expect people to join the cause. We have to design a system to make it economically viable. We’re trying to use grower-level interface to allow growers to look themselves in the mirror and compare their own sustainability practices to those in their community and region.

Q: From your work at GMA, is there any discussion about retailers or food service operators limiting their suppliers to those implementing sustainable practices? Providing additional incentives?

A: There has been some talk about that on the buying side; a retailer or restaurant chain would capitalize on the fact they are purchasing from farmers that use the Keystone Initiative as part of their overall sustainability program.

Q: Would there be some kind of independent, third-party audit or Keystone sustainability certification to validate the participants’ efforts?

A: In regard to auditing and certification, the benefit has to be balanced against the cost. If it adds cost to the system through certification, you have to pull costs out through productivity. You have to weigh the value. By using the grower model approach, maybe that amounts to enough evidence.

Right now we need to focus on the grower interface to let them put data in and get their data out. They’re participating, we’re getting data from the company and we see the productivity improving. If you get third party certifiers going farm to farm, that could add significant costs to the system. We’re steering away from audits. Getting/giving data should be sufficient, at least for now.

Q: In addition to the immediate productivity aspects, is the Keystone Initiative dealing with social aspects, worker rights, etc.?

A: The Keystone Initiative has that in its charter, not only the productivity piece, but also economic and social aspects. Once again, we are narrowing the scope initially and operating in phases to get up and running. On the social side, for the economic well being of farming agricultural communities, productivity is a key area.

Issues like worker rights and food safety and nutrition are on the shelf now, not to be ignored, but not a major area of influence at the beginning. The metrics have to do with productivity; there have to be incentives for the farmer to participate. If it costs too much money and is burdensome, we won’t get him to take part. He has loans to pay, banks to satisfy, and productivity quotients he has to meet. Once the train’s on track, these other issues can be incorporated.

Q: What is your take on marketing sustainability measures to consumers?

A: Each company sets its own sustainability objectives. Some companies are much more aggressive, while others are working behind the scenes and not in your face. Each company will choose its program and how to promote it. Whether you want to be out there promoting, or in the wings doing your thing and doing right is an individual choice. However, if you’re out there too far and things don’t go your way, it would be easy for consumers to get a bad taste.

Many of these sustainability programs are complex. The issue of food miles is an excellent example. It takes a whole lifecycle analysis of a product to understand its impact on the environment compared to other alternatives. When a study was done to calculate whether people in the UK would be doing more for the environment by buying local produce versus flying it in from Kenya, the results were not as expected.

It doesn’t do the industry much good if a company makes sustainability claims that turn out to be unfounded, and consumers call foul on you. If you try to promote your sustainability practices, you better be sure they don’t blow up in your face, because that won’t be helpful to anyone. The food companies are moving slowly, piloting case studies, which is a more conservative way to go than mandating XYZ, which could come back to haunt you later.

The Keystone Initiative is an enormously powerful approach because it provides a way to square the circle.

On the one hand, highly proscriptive standards won’t work on an industrywide basis for the simple reason that there is no consensus in values. Even within the environmental sphere, if one farm invested in a system that enabled it to reduce synthetic pesticide use by 80% and another farm invested in a system that had no effect on pesticides but, instead, reduced water use by 65%, which farm wins the award as more sustainable? The answer is that there is no answer to that question. It is just two farms focused on different aspects of the environmental sphere of sustainability.

If we add in the tension between the environmental, social and economic spheres typically attributed to sustainability, the notion of dictating one standard becomes absurd. How do we weigh one farm that places its priorities on increasing production so as to feed more people with another farm that focuses its efforts on reducing its environmental impact? How do these farms stack against a third that focuses on improving its financial performance so it can pay farm workers better and build a much needed rural hospital in its community?

There is no way to compare these things.

This has led experts to look to a much more positive, uplifting and inclusive version of sustainability built on a model of continuous improvement.

In this perspective values are not dictated and all are free to join the journey from wherever they happen to stand, and the journey is not expected to be the same for everyone as we recognize and respect that different people and organizations are in different situations and have different values.

Yet continuous improvement, without any way of measuring improvement, can quickly evolve into littler more than a marketing slogan.

Efforts such as those being undertaken by the Keystone Center are important because by developing industry metrics, they provide a yardstick by which continuous improvement can be measured and tracked. This turns sloganeering into serious work and serious efforts at improvement.

This is surely a long term effort; Dr. Barach touches on the tensions inherent in efforts to sustain the population with food, while sustaining the environment. He freely admits that much has been put to the side, including controversial issues on some aspects of social responsibility. This is, however, a clear step in the right direction.

Dr. Barach laid out a guideline for the produce industry to get involved with this effort and warned of the consequences if the industry does not:

Unfortunately produce folks won‘t be involved right up front. What produce folks can do is look at the systems and tools and start to formulate the next step of Keystone’s evolution to minor crops. Push to get involved in the initiative now, so when priorities are formulated for what’s next they’ll have a voice at the table. The steering committee is open for people to join in and have influence on what transpires in the future. It could easily turn to animal agriculture; that may not occur if produce people are at the table to follow along this path.

This seems like a clear charge to the industry and its leadership. Let us get ourselves lined up for the next projects so we can begin gathering information.

The brief comments Dr. Barach made on food miles, a topic we have discussed here, here, here, here and here, and the necessity for complicated life cycle analysis, a topic we discussed both here and here, point to the danger of proceeding in ignorance.

Despite some people’s predispositions, only careful research will tell us about the sustainability or lack thereof of organic growing practices or of shipping things from distant points of the earth or using greenhouses.

If we are smart, we will start gathering this information now. Doing so in conjunction with The Keystone Center is a very reasonable approach.

Many thanks to Dr. Barach, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, The Keystone Center and all involved with the Creating Sustainable Outcomes for Agriculture Initiative for sharing their thoughts and learning on this matter with us all.

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