Sara O’Brien, Director of Conservation Effectiveness
How green are your greens? How about your canned tomatoes? Wouldn’t you like to know more about how the spinach or tomatoes you get at your grocery store were grown, harvested, processed and delivered?
Many farmers, processors, packers, and retailers of specialty crops – which include most fruits, vegetables, and nuts – are taking a cue from consumers and paying more attention to how their products impact the present and future well-being of people, wildlife and the environment. Measuring the results and communicating them to consumers is another matter.
The need to quantify how sustainable the food supply chain is has led a diverse set of partners to develop a project called the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. Defenders of Wildlife is collaborating with other non-profit groups, retail buyers, agricultural producers and trade associations to develop this unique set of metrics for measuring agricultural sustainability. These groups have often found themselves at odds in the past, but they share an interest in telling the stories of farmers that choose to manage their land more sustainably.
The Stewardship Index project aims to develop a system to measure the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of food production, processing, and distribution. Traditional certification systems draw a line between products that are considered sustainable or “green” and those that are not, but that line can sometimes be arbitrary. For instance, a product can be considered organic if it uses a substance naturally derived from plant sources, even if that product is more toxic than a synthetic alternative. Something simply labeled “green” doesn’t really tell you what you’re paying for.
The Stewardship Index takes a different approach. Instead of drawing a line between “good” or “bad” products, we measure different aspects of sustainability to create a set of scores that describe on-the-ground outcomes, such as biodiversity protection, fair labor practices, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and energy use. For example, a carrot grower that left natural habitat intact or used less-toxic alternatives for pest control would receive a higher rating in the biodiversity and pesticide scores than one that did not. That way, consumers like you can make your own decision about whether or not it’s a product you want. Maybe you want to buy local produce because it has a smaller carbon footprint, but you also want to make sure that it’s being grown in a way that doesn’t destroy important wildlife habitat, or uses water very efficiently. These are the kinds of choices we’re hoping to give consumers the power to make. Eventually, you’ll be able to compare products that are grown and processed in different ways and make much more informed choices about what you buy.
Using scores from the Stewardship Index, people throughout the specialty crop supply chain – from farmers to processors and retailers to consumers – would be better able understand and communicate the environmental, social, and economic impacts of how crops are produced and handled. That’s important because it isn’t just you and me in the grocery store who want to know how sustainable a product is. Stores want to be able to offer greener products for the customers who want them, but can’t do so unless they know how “green” the products are. And farmers are often looking for ways to tell buyers (whether that’s retail stores or individual customers) more about the sustainability of their products – which is exactly what the Stewardship Index would allow them to do.
Over the past few years, Defenders has brought our unique perspective on and expertise in wildlife conservation to the Stewardship Index table to help the project figure out how to describe and measure some of the positive and negative effects different agricultural practices can have on wildlife and habitats. We’ve worked with other Stewardship Index members and other partners to create a scoring system that would allow farmers to measure and communicate how their land management practices affect wildlife. Early versions of the system were difficult for the farmers to apply, so now we are working on an updated version that would use an online tool to make it easier for users to enter data and interpret their results.
Once the Sustainability Index becomes more widely used, it could completely change how you shop. We’re excited to be working on something that will make such a big difference for wildlife and the environment.