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How do you define “Sustainability?”

Sustainability has been a hot topic for the past decade. But, when it comes to agriculture, what does the term “sustainable” mean, exactly?

The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops is working to figure that out. I met with some leaders from the group’s Coordinating Council this weekend, and they explained the program and discussed some of their goals.

Basically, growers and other produce industry companies throughout the supply chain are being asked by their customers to demonstrate “sustainability.” But, the term is still highly subjective, and that subjectivity has led to a growing number of certification programs that focus on niche markets or specific crops.

The Stewardship Index was launched in December 2008 with 430 representatives from agriculture, food companies, non-governmental organizations, universities and food companies. Since then, they’ve been working to develop specific metrics that measure things like a business’ impact on air quality and local ecosystems. How they impact soil and water quality, how their packaging impacts the environment, how much water they use, how much waste they generate, how they use pesticides, etc., etc.

The goal isn’t to generate a set of new industry standards. Instead, two of the primary goals of the Stewardship Index are to better define the sustainability concept for fruit and vegetable companies, and to offer growers and other companies throughout the supply chain a set of benchmarks for measuring and improving their own performance.

The group launched a series of pilot studies this spring, and preliminary results should be out sometime early next year. Expect to see more about this group’s pioneering work in future issues of SN.