National Sustainable Agriculture Standards Debated

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Animal Welfare Institute

The Leonardo Academy has announced the first meeting of the stakeholder group that will develop "a national consensus standard for sustainable agriculture in the United States". Scientific Certification Systems, who developed standards for the floral industry called Veriflora, initiated the development of standards for sustainable agriculture before turning over the process to the Leonardo Academy to use the non-proprietary ANSI process to involve as diverse a development stakeholder group as possible.

In the push "beyond organic" it was inevitable that someone would eventually try to establish a sustainable agriculture standard. But it is questionable whether there is a need for the standard and whether consumers will accept, or care about, yet another type of food label. Why another standard?
The Leonardo Academy explains.

A large and growing segment of consumers in the US are actively seeking to support companies whose agricultural products are grown and handled sustainably. However, there is little agreement about what sustainability means. Moreover, there is considerable confusion over, and disagreement about, the relationship between "sustainable," "organic," "locally grown," "IPM" and "food miles." As the sustainability market heats up, with competing claims and definitions, this confusion is likely to increase. When there is market confusion, as well as an absence of government regulations, voluntary national standards serve as a vehicle for resolving differences to retain public confidence.

Using the national organic standards as a baseline the stakeholder group is charged with deciding what should and shouldn't be included in the new rules. Some topics up for debate include:

1) the relationship between organic, mainstream and sustainable agriculture; 2) the place of genetically engineered crops in sustainable agriculture; 3) the degree to which sustainable agriculture standards should establish a path for continuous improvement; 4) inclusiveness of small and mid-size farms, as well as mainstream and conventional agriculture; 5) the sequestration of carbon in soils and the role of agriculture in the global fight against climate change; 6) the strength of labor protections; 7) the intersection of product safety and sustainability; and 8) whether the scope of the standard should extend beyond plant agriculture to include livestock and other sectors of agriculture.

The inclusion of any discussion about including genetically engineered crops is sure to ruffle some feathers. But, ignoring that elephant for a moment, the preliminary discussion of the standards does fill in some gaps that are overlooked by organic standards. Most notably, the mention of labor protection and the specific role of agriculture and climate change.

If nothing else, getting stakeholders like Dole and The Corn Refiners Association to sit and listen to visionaries from the Rodale Institute and Western Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Center (SARE) may be reason enough to support the process.

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