Commentary: Agriculture must engage in conversations about change


Issue Date: January 25, 2012
By Tom Nassif and Paul Wenger
Agricultural practices have come under increasing scrutiny from buyers, with a focus on sustainability, for which there is no accepted definition.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Tom Nassif
Paul Wenger

Increasingly, people want a say in how we produce and distribute food in the United States.

We've long heard from environmental and animal rights groups. Now, the voices of celebrity chefs, authors and filmmakers are becoming much more prominent. Even hospitals, public health and medical groups are weighing in to encourage changes in the food system, with a focus on sustainability—for which there is no accepted definition.

Buyers of the products we grow—food companies, retailers and foodservice chains—are focusing on agricultural practices in the name of healthier consumers, healthier animals and a healthier planet.

Our methods and motives are being questioned and challenged as never before.

California farmers and ranchers are at a critical crossroads. How do we strategically respond to make the greatest impact on shaping this conversation without being too defensive? How do we capitalize on the mushrooming public curiosity about who grows their food and how it's grown?

Buyers are at the top of the list of stakeholders trying to tap into this phenomenon. More buyers are making site visits and wanting to know more about our practices. This is an educational opportunity to influence our buyers and they in turn can help disarm some of our critics. While we can't have people telling us how to farm, we can be aware of their concerns and help them appreciate all the best management practices already in place, what change is possible, what's not and where we will do things differently.

The 2011 Food Foresight trends report cites Joe MacIlvaine of Paramount Farming on buyer concerns: "We clearly aren't doing everything we can to address their concerns but we're 90 percent there, so why not document and package our practices? Doing so allows us to frame the discussion and get ahead of it." MacIlvaine pointed to an initiative the Almond Board of California is working on. The board is helping define "sustainability" by breaking it down into modules. More than 300 growers are participating in a program to quantify air and water quality, pesticides, fertilizer, even human resources practices. The Almond Board has a goal to double the number of participants in 2012.

"Customers aren't going away on this," MacIlvaine said. "The question is, do we want a separate set of standards for every customer or one set for the industry? The Almond Board (like the California winegrape growers before it), is working toward the latter."

Western Growers and the California Farm Bureau Federation are providing input to a similar initiative called the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. Farm, buyer and environmental groups are working together on identifying and testing science-based metrics that make economic sense for measuring resource use efficiency. The Stewardship Index is also involved with other like-minded initiatives, including the Field-to-Market Initiative and the Sustainability Consortium, to harmonize objective sustainability metrics, but are years away from agreement on which metrics are appropriate, feasible and quantifiable.

Parallel to developing these metrics, there are multiple stakeholder initiatives around the country—30 at last count—dealing with a number of variations of feeding an increasingly hungry world while using fewer natural resources. Foundations are funding many of these initiatives. Most of the initiatives lack adequate producer involvement. Without it, we are likely to suffer the consequences of unrealistic regulations and production protocols being imposed upon agriculture by others.

Given the unprecedented involvement, both in number and type of non-farm stakeholders, we have to be engaged. However, we also need to be strategic about picking those groups and initiatives with which to align ourselves.

Most of these initiatives are responses to the agendas of others. We should also take the offensive and frame our own opportunities. The diversity of California agricultural production, both geographically and in crops grown, fits nicely with strategies to address alarming public health trends of increasing obesity, the prevalence of diabetes, escalating health care costs, and concerns relative to a growing number of people who don't have access to enough healthy food.

Why not engage retail and foodservice chains with health and medical groups and food banks on public health initiatives, in return for public and policy support for issues critical to growing healthy foods?

Agriculture must begin to work cooperatively in these efforts. There's too much demonizing of some agricultural segments by others: "My way of farming is better than yours." "Small is beautiful, big is bad." "Big is more efficient, small is for the elite." The list of ways we divide ourselves is increasing. Demonizing each other neither adds to agriculture's strength at the stakeholder-planning table nor hastens the development of effective solutions to important issues affecting the economic viability of our producers. It's all about choices. Consumers want a variety of food choices and entrepreneurial farmers can meet those demands with a variety of business models. There's room for everyone.

The reality is the world needs more food production utilizing the most efficient, sustainable and effective production technologies to meet the demands of a growing population. Agriculture must work together or face a host of unintended consequences.

(Tom Nassif is CEO of Western Growers. Paul Wenger is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.