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Published December 21, 2010, 10:13 AM

A new farming issue: Sustainability

BILOXI, Miss. — Farmers who think they have won the battle over climate change when they stopped the cap and trade bill in Congress now face a related challenge that may be harder to fight: Pressure from their own food processor and retailer customers to prove that commodities and other ingredients are produced in a “sustainable” way.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

BILOXI, Miss. — Farmers who think they have won the battle over climate change when they stopped the cap and trade bill in Congress now face a related challenge that may be harder to fight: Pressure from their own food processor and retailer customers to prove that commodities and other ingredients are produced in a “sustainable” way.

Recently, the USA Rice Federation, an organization of farmers, millers, merchants and related businesses, held a session at its annual rice outlook conference in Biloxi, Miss., that highlighted how seriously American agriculture is beginning to take this nongovernmental challenge.

The concept of sustainable development has been around since a 1983 United Nations commission said “the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development” meant that development had to change so that it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Feeding demand

As vague and amorphous as that sounds, governments and international institutions have been trying to apply it to policy since, and they are increasingly joined by big, global corporations. Food retailers such as Wal-Mart and global processors such as Kellogg Co., the cereal giant, are feeling the pressure from environmentally minded customers and governments other than the United States.

But as Diane Holdorf, vice president for environmental stewardship, health and safety at Kellogg, explained to the rice group, her company and others now think that they cannot continue to make their own products if they do not use fewer resources to do the job. To grow enough food for the 6.8 billion people in the world today already takes more of the earth’s resources than are replaced, and to grow the food for an estimated 9 billion people in 2050 will take even more, Holdorf said.

The issue came home to Kellogg Co., Holdorf said, when Australia experienced a drought a few years ago and the company could not source enough rice for its big food production facilities in that country. In addition, European retailers such as Marks and Spencer want to show customers that their products are sustainably produced, a website called Good Guide is rating products, and France is planning government labels explaining the environmental affect of products, Holdorf noted.

To address all these concerns, Kellogg in 2005 set a 10-year goal of reducing its energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and waste per metric ton of food produced by 10 to 20 percent, Holdorf said.

“This is global for us and for you if export,” Holdorf told the rice industry, which exports 45 to 50 percent of its production.

Reducing impacts

It’s not clear what exactly Kellogg and other food processors and retailers will expect of farmers in the future, but it is clear they want the farmers to do as much as possible to reduce their environmental impact so that the final products will win consumer acceptance.

USA Rice already is trying to address the pressure to prove its efficiency. It released a report by a consulting firm showing that since 1987 the rice industry has produced 21 percent more rice per acre while reducing soil loss by 43 percent, water use by 33 percent, energy use by 52 percent and soil methane by 29 percent. The federation declared that these statistics should be benchmarks against which the industry should be judged in the future.

Two coalitions already have been formed to address sustainability challenges in agriculture and food.

The Sustainability Consortium, which was started with a grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation and has a membership of food companies, is developing a standardized method to evaluate and report product life cycle information for food, beverage and agriculture products. The Colorado-based Keystone Alliance, which has a membership mostly of commodity and conservation groups, wants to represent farmers and conservationists in encouraging sustainable practices and proving that farmers are using them.

Marty Matlock, an ecological engineer with the University of Arkansas Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability, told the rice industry that achievements of the next 10 years in research, improved genetics, production management practices and technology, will help them achieve goals of sustainability. But he warned the growers that they would have to make changes.

“If you’re only reacting to this change, you’re going to go out of business,” Matlock said.

Producer pressure

But audience reaction to the presentations showed that the pressure for sustainability has renewed some of the oldest conflicts in farming and the reason that farmers have turned to the government for a safety it.

“We don’t call it sustainable, we call it survival,” Ray Vester, a Stuttgart, Ark. Grower, told the panel. “The only hindering factor in rice sustainability is profitability. We are on the bottom of the economic chain. We don’t tell people what we sell our products for. We don’t tell people what we’ll pay for imports.” A California rice farmer added that Kellogg needs to realize that farmers “don’t have control over Mother Nature” and that farmers manufacture outdoors.

Holdorf told the rice industry that Kellogg is trying to figure out how to take those issues into consideration. Matlock thinks the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies will stay out of the sustainability issue as long as they satisfied with what the private sector is doing and the courts do not issue any more rulings requiring government agencies to take action.

Matlock opposes product labeling for sustainability, but companies seem inclined to label because their marketers think customers will reward them for reducing their use of the world’s resources.

So far, farm leaders are trying to address these issues themselves, but the 2012 farm bill approached, it’s not hard to imagine them asking the government for some sort of regulations on sustainability indexes or direct aid to help comply with them. There are precedents for seeking such help.

Farmers already use USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help pay for changes to their operations to comply with environmental regulations. And some fruit and vegetable producers have been so shocked by the strict growing conditions that some processors, restaurants and retailers have been demanding that they hope the new rules and regulations in the food safety bill moving through Congress will satisfy them.