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The Packer: United Fresh Sustainability Tool Draws Attention

Tom Karst


If there are questions about what sustainability is, it is no surprise there are even more questions about how to track it.

For the produce industry, measuring sustainability isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops is expected to release new information on sustainability metrics soon. With that in mind, California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen said he believes the Sustainability Guide and Self Management tool released by the United Fresh Foundation in June deserves a closer look.

“All of us were in there trying to come up with a template that would work for the entire supply side so we could avoid the plethora of audits, demands, mandates, suggestions that were coming forth,” Nelsen said. “Everyone is going through a minimum of three to four food safety audits; you don’t need three to four sustainability audits.”

Nelsen has heard concerns about the Stewardship Index and other standards, and believes the United Fresh sustainability tool has not yet received enough attention as a possible harmonized approach. “I think it is something the produce industry should grasp and run with,” he said.

Nelsen worries metric-based measures of energy or chemical use could become an “easy target” for those who are unaware how the pressures change in producing a commodity.

“Now is the time to make this document relevant again, and it is an opportunity we shouldn’t miss,” Nelsen said.

United Fresh Foundation’s Center for Global Produce Sustainability created the tool. Bayer CropScience provided a four-year grant to create the center. The sustainability tool is available online, free to United Fresh members and $75 for non-members.

Nikki Rodoni, director of sustainability for Gills Onions/Rio Farms and chairwoman of United’s Center for Global Produce Sustainability Advisory Board, said she would like a group of growers in different growing regions use the tool for a whole season.

“It is a great tool for people who haven’t established a sustainability program,” she said. “It is very practice-based and it is a self audit to understand what sustainability looks like.”

The tool may eventually use metrics to measure sustainability, but for now will stick to the practices-based approach, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communications for United Fresh.

“There is probably room for both, but we don’t want to make people think they have to follow a hard metric at this stage,” Gilmer said.

Though the Bayer grant has ended, Gilmer said he expects the sustainability tool will be revised.

“We are going to come out version 1.5 maybe next year,” he said.

Rodoni said she hopes the current document can be put in digital form so that it can be more easily shared with buyers that might ask for it. Eventually, Rodoni believes metrics might be useful in helping to support the practices-based assessment.

The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops — launched in 2008 — developed sustainability measures for water, energy, soil and nutrients used in crop production.

“While SISC recognizes the importance of best practices, that is not our focus,” Krysten Hommel, spokeswoman for the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, said in a e-mail.

The index focuses on input from growers, buyers and public interest to develop and share a data-driven system for measuring on-farm performance, she said.

Hommel said developers of the Stewardship Index believe the industry will adopt a system that offers the supply chain a consistency to assessing and communicating stewardship in the production of specialty crops.

Rodoni said both the United Fresh guide and the Stewardship Index are great tools for the industry.

“There is a need for growers to be able to carry on a conversation with their supply chain partners about what they are doing in terms of improving and tracking sustainability,” said John Keeling, chief executive officer of the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C.

“Being able to measure outcomes is a valuable way to communicate if a grower can say he reduced his energy input, for example, by so much over time,” he said.

At the same time, practices are the language growers speak.

“In the end, we are going to talk to growers about practices and we are going to want for growers to think through practices and at the same time measure outcomes because that is a real clear way to talk about it,” he said. “I don’t see it being an either/or thing,” he said.

Keeling predicts it will be an evolutionary process.

“We’re not going to design the perfect mousetrap on this thing today, tomorrow or into the near future,” he said. “I would hope that we take the best of all these options and go together in a form that is most useful to growers and most informative to the supply chain,” he said.