Sustainability may mean different things to different people but that’s no excuse for anyone to ignore the trend. Sustainably sourced food is mainstream and farmers and rural landowners who don’t get on board likely will lose major markets for their products.
From the ground up, processes and procedures designed to measure and advance sustainability throughout the food system are being instituted. Companies with large buying clout such as Walmart, Costco and Kroger have turned to suppliers such as Cargill, Tyson, Dannon, General Mills and Perdue who in turn look to farmers for assurances that their products are being raised and produced sustainably.
When food companies measure sustainability they most often consider the soil, water, energy and air quality impacts of growing the food. Often this definition also includes the treatment of farmworkers and animals. While fair labor practices are not typically an item of concern in the U.S., where the minimum wage is mandated, labor issues are important in developing countries where multi-national food companies source coffee, cocoa, palm oil and other commodities. And, few companies are even adding assessments for biodiversity and habitat loss.
What this means for farmers and ranchers is we must start proving their sustainability in terms of animal welfare, manure management, land-use practices, fuel use and carbon output. They also must find ways to show continued improvements to our farm practices that improve our sustainability.
Thankfully, major farm organizations recognize the demand for food sustainability and have been working to help farmers measure and tell their sustainability stories both individually and cooperatively across the food chain. The lifecycle analyses, roundtable discussions and metric benchmarking our major commodity organizations are engaged with are good starting points. Initiatives of the Midwest Row-Crop Initiative, Soil Health Partnership and Field-to-Market activities add more depth to farming’s involvement.
None of these initiatives go far enough. Already select farmers are being asked to provide documented proof, in terms of real measurements, of their sustainability improvements. Several well-financed companies offer computer programs that gather sustainability data from farmers and establish performance benchmarks for food companies to use in sourcing their meat, dairy, cotton, eggs and poultry. Next will come benchmarks for feed and manure management.
Once metrics are established lines are drawn, standards set and farms judged accordingly. Certainly, economics and financial well-being are part of the sustainability equation. Food companies understand, as do consumers, that farmers must make a livelihood to stay in business. Still, the burden now falls on individual farmers to demonstrate how they are using proper farming methods, technologies and management practices to protect the environment, their animals and their workers.
Anecdotal stories about earthworms, happy cows and pollinator habitats aren’t enough. It’s time to adopt the best science and advanced technologies available to show continual, real progress. We must share and compare our practices while recording and reporting our data to prove we are continually improving.
If farmers want to maintain their reputation as America’s original environmentalists then it’s vital to embrace the food sustainability movement. Track and analyze data. Try a new practice. Share and compare ideas and learn from others.
Only then will U.S. farmers be able to maintain their status as the people who feed the world.