Q: To many, sustainability is a nebulous concept, encompassing three silos; environmental, social and economic. Bayer CropScience says it is dedicated to harmonizing these needs. How will the Center for Global Produce Sustainability further this goal?
Gregg: We’re a global research and technology company, and bringing these disciplines to industry is key to our whole initiative. Bayer CropScience has definite loyalty to help in production of a healthy, abundant food source. We are involved in quite a few sustainability initiatives from both a local and global standpoint, and we see this as one more in that effort. The whole supply chain is critical to what we do.
Q: There are already three on-going sustainability schemes gaining momentum: The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which is produce-specific and centered on creating common metrics as a means to measure progress; the more controversial Leonardo Academy/ANSI initiative, bent on developing national standards; and the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, a more seasoned parallel industry sustainability venture. How will these different initiatives relate to the Center for Global Produce Sustainability? Will they be integrated, or do you see potential duplication? What do you ideally wish to accomplish through this center?
Tom: There is a little concern that with so many sustainability initiatives, we may be going in a lot of different directions. It seems people have strong opinions on standards and whether sustainability measures should be imposed. Sustainability is clearly growing in importance across the whole supply chain. Numerous retailers are embracing sustainability and looking to suppliers to do the same. We want to define what that means.
We at United Fresh are part of all these initiatives. This is not about duplicating, starting over or competing with any programs. We’re on the steering committee of the Stewardship Index, the most focused sustainability effort as an industry. We haven’t had the time or resources to play as big a role as we’d like. One vision is to drive more resources and be more influential on the Stewardship Index.
The same applies to ANSI. Robert Guenther is on the leadership task force of the advisory board for the Leonardo/ANSI initiative, which is a little more problematic to be honest. It started out with a preconceived notion, defining sustainable as having to be organic, tunneling it in a certain direction. The industry lobbied hard, arguing the need for it to be technically neutral, outcome-based, looking to land and water use, and all those other attributes. It’s not with technical farm production that you get there. The donation Bayer is providing will allow us a much stronger role with the ANSI group.
The Keystone Center appears to be doing a very, very good job in developing an outcome-based model for agriculture, targeting the row crops. We want to link with the Keystone Group. This is not at all about duplicating efforts.
Gregg: Keystone’s Field to Market Alliance puts its focus on corn, wheat, soy and cotton. It brings in people from the farms, the food companies, conservationists, and agribusiness. Everything is science-based, and information is publicly available, usually government-generated and verifiable. It is substantiated on information that is not produced by industry. It has almost become a model for other sustainability initiatives. There is significant support for the Field to Market Alliance across the board.
We want to see widespread participation across the produce supply chain, just like the Stewardship Index is doing. We want United to be more involved.
Q: What role will retailers play in the Center for Global Produce Sustainability?
Tom: Retailers fit in very strongly. Retailers don’t buy wheat or corn or soybeans directly, rather the products made from them. In our case, retailers are buying vegetable and fruit commodities, making for a much shorter supply chain. We must include distributors as well, and the transportation side with efficiencies in fuel use will be a key part of sustainability in the supply chain. As we start moving to put together an advisory board, we want participation from the grower side all the way through to retail.
Q: Will retailers sign up? What feedback have you received? While you’ve just officially released the news, I imagine this has been brewing behind the scenes for quite some time…
Tom: The background is that on the inside, Gregg and his team have been talking with us for months to put together this collaboration. This past Monday, Bayer presented the proposal to the United Board of Directors and received a very strong and positive reaction from 40 individuals representing the whole supply chain, including foodservice restaurant companies and retailers. The feeling was that this would be extremely helpful in driving sustainability.
This is more than just working with standards or metrics. The three sustainability schemes we discussed earlier are well along in the process. A few months ago, we questioned if there was a reason to form a new group to develop standards, particularly related to the Stewardship Index. We don’t want sustainability to go off on a tangent and lose its basis on science. We want the whole food chain represented.
Q: Are national standards desirable or even possible? Taking into account the three silos, how do you weigh the costs and benefits of different sustainability measures? Michael Hewitt, manager, environmental services at Publix doubts the validity of developing national standards. In a recent interview, he told us that sustainability should be company-specific based on business philosophy and strategic needs.
Tom: We’re not looking to develop a set of standards everyone has to comply with; this is not a food safety standard. Sustainability has to do with business philosophy, and the need to develop common language. We want to define terms, so whether it’s Publix, Kroger, Safeway, or Wal-Mart, everyone understands what sustainability means. We’ll leave it to the private sector to decide where that ranks in its priorities.
The important thing is making sure we’re on the same page, establishing a science-based outcome using metrics and really approaching that whole process for the entire industry.
Gregg: A lot of people think sustainability equates to ag production, some to carbon footprint, others to food miles, but none of these within themselves are the single most important factor. We have to look at sustainability holistically, on how we are growing and processing fresh produce around the world. It makes for a much broader discussion than a specific scorecard measure.
I agree with what Tom is saying regarding objective, common, scientific-based terminology. Establishing one philosophy is not good for anyone. We are not trying to institute certification programs or standards that people would be required to do.
At the same time, we don’t want multiple definitions and concepts pulling people in different directions.
Tom: When meeting with the Bayer management team, we talked about making good progress with specific, measurable and verifiable metrics. At this point, people have their heads wrapped around a broad definition of sustainability, the three “p’s” — people, planet, prosperity — and are not zeroing in.
One of our missions is in helping to educate the industry to incorporate sustainability practices.
Q: What is the fundamental lesson you want the industry to take away from this discussion?
Tom: I sense an underlying fear from people looking at sustainability as one more demand being pushed down their throats. Soon there will be more and more government requirements. We need to turn this fear around to what a company can do at the farm level, or through transportation to lower energy use and to create a more benign environment. But it’s also critical to look at the third “p”, profitability. Sustainability demands we can afford to do it; economic viability is a big part of it.
Gregg: This program center is not brick-and-mortar. It gives us focus to develop educational programs on what growers need, maybe targeted for different commodities.
Q: I may be premature in asking, but in addition to Bayer’s extremely generous donation, are you looking to solicit additional contributions by other parties?
Tom: Bayer clearly is the company making this a reality. In the long-term, there will be areas that are not part of the core business practice for Bayer, such as the social welfare side, labor practices, and transportation, and Bayer is very supportive of other partners getting involved. But we need to walk before we run.
Gregg: It was rewarding when we made the pre-announcement to the United Board of Directors and there was so much positive response. People were saying I want to be on the advisory team. We were excited to see so many people cooperating. We think we will have a strong vision, not just related to specific interests, but on what benefits the whole industry.
Q: How does government fit in to this strategy?
Tom: Clearly we can expect government to become more and more involved. We want to have an influential role. We want this industry to take proactive steps, rather than be given a regulatory mandate. Realistically, we have to be prepared to act with government agencies on a number of these issues. We need to bridge the gap from agriculture being viewed as part of the problem to part of the solution. You don’t keep a family farm for three or four generations if you’re not sustainable. Yes, indeed, the ability to relate with government is critical.
Q: Could you discuss the global aspect? Will you be incorporating elements of sustainability and corporate social responsibility from international programs like ChileGAP and GlobalGAP? How do you marry divergent mandates and perspectives?
Tom: We had discussions in Berlin at the Fruit Logistics Conference. United formed the Global Advisory Council, involving 15 to 20 individuals from all around the world. We have members in 28 countries. Sustainability is different in Europe than the U.S., than Australia. Can you bring balance globally so that you’re all on the same page?
In speaking with a Chilean grower organization, they exported half their product to North America and half to Europe, dealing with different government standards and different retail standards. How do we embrace commonality? Sustainability has a global perspective. We’ll want Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer involved in this effort… and the Australian processing industry, for example. The endeavor has to have a global component with so many multinational programs in place.
Del Monte and Dole can’t just stay in silos, and retailers can’t either; they’re sourcing from around the world, many with operations around the world.
Q: What can companies do to get involved with your venture?
Tom: We see commitment flushing itself out. We’re anxious to get going after kicking it off. Let us hear from you. Jim Prevor has done a fantastic job covering sustainability.
I’m hesitant to move too fast, preferring to take baby steps first. An initial priority is to hire a Director of Sustainability. I can only do so much personally. While I love to hear from members of industry talk about these issues, one of my early goals is focusing on the recruiting process, hiring someone from the outside to staff leaders. Anyone out there that sees this as a passion with experience in sustainability, please contact me. Can you do a help wanted ad in the Perishable Pundit?!
Q: No doubt our readers will take notice! Are there any important points we’re missing; that we’d be remiss in not discussing here?
Tom: One piece of background that might be useful. We received reaction from reporters that we’re constructing an actual building to house this Center. This is not the plan. This is an initiative within United’s Research and Education Foundation. We have three other centers currently, which allow us to focus programming around a core set of issues. For example, Lorelei DiSogra’s work is done within Food Safety, Quality and Nutrition. It’s not atypical to develop a program like this within a center.
Gregg: Bayer CropScience felt the best way to invest in the produce side of the food chain was through a partnership with United. There is no one better to influence change in this area. Our company, all the way to the CEO, is very supportive of this issue and in our commitment to the industries in which we work.
Q: Going forward, pinpoint the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity?
Tom: I’d say on the flipside, there’s one issue presenting both a challenge and opportunity: Making sustainability a positive issue within the fruit and vegetable supply chain. There is so much that companies want to do to enhance operations, but it can’t be a demand. Sustainability can’t be punitive, someone telling you what you have to do. We have to turn the paradigm around. People are so tired of the pressures on day-to-day business; improve operations, lower costs, enhance productivity, increase efficiency.
Sustainability is a huge opportunity, not a punishment. We need to do work with metrics and the definition of terms, make sure standards are based on science and economic viability. Companies rolling out sustainability can embrace it within their own best business interests.
Gregg: People working in sustainability have found profitability grow, more efficiencies in transportation, a better workforce, the impact on the environment improve, and other very positive outcomes. Sustainability is an opportunity, it’s a good thing. If people go in afraid, seeing an unnecessary standard imposed on them, sustainability won’t work. You don’t find anyone more dedicated to the Stewardship Index and the environment than the growers themselves.
Q: Do you view sustainability as a marketing opportunity? What influence do consumers have in these initiatives?
Tom: Today, we’re seeing sustainability being used in marketing, and it’s important to show what a company is doing. That won’t change. From an industry standpoint, I’d like to talk about industry efforts overall, not picking one company over another, which fruit is more sustainable. I don’t want to get into that kind of competitive positioning. Sustainability is a process and we always want to be getting better.
Well, Tom’s got his help wanted ad and we hope to share some of our own learning with the people staffing this new initiative.
The primary challenge in the area of sustainability is that what should be an uplifting process, by which associates are empowered to do compelling things, is all too often seen as a burden dictated by a buyer.
Although the urge to create uniform standards is understandable, even laudable in its hope to avoid the duplicative auditing and burdensome bureaucracy that growers and packers have come to experience in the food safety arena, sustainability is by its very nature not amenable to meaningful standards development.
Quick… one grower has managed to reduce its carbon footprint by 20%, another has managed to decrease its use of water by 20% — which is more sustainable? Let us add a third grower into the mix. He didn’t invest in the technology to either reduce water use or carbon emissions, but as a result he was able to build a cancer care center at the local hospital. Is he more sustainable? What about a fourth that did none of those things but hoarded his money and was able to stay in business during the next recession when his three competitors had to close up? Or what about a fifth grower who reduced his carbon footprint, reduced water usage, donated to the hospital and stayed in business — but illegally colluded with a competitor to fix prices?
Despite the claims of some that one can figure a sustainability bottom line analogous to an accounting bottom line, the different spheres of sustainability just don’t add up in that mathematical kind of way. So sustainability has to be about value clarification and then a mindfulness that prevents inadvertent violations of those values.
Certainly there is lots of fuzzy math out there and all too much “greenwashing,” so new funds and new attention to help clarify the numbers and prevent competition from straying into propaganda is needed. Just in this, there is much to look forward to in the new United Center that Bayer CropScience is funding.
We hope, though, that this Center can be an oculus around which a more enlightened and liberating understanding of sustainability can grow. You can be certain we will exert all our efforts to help make it so.
We thank both Bayer CropScience and United Fresh for giving the industry such an opportunity.