Author’s note: The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author, Sara Hessenflow Harper, and do not necessarily represent any other organization or individual.
Sustainability assessment of the agriculture sector – in some shape or form, is coming! (See my previous posts - and especially the one about the real drivers pushing the sustainability trend.) For an increasing number of crops and products, it is already here. The drivers behind this trend of wanting to know more about how food or fiber was produced, are connected to deep and encompassing forces like 3 billion more people joining the planet in the coming decades, a rise of a global middle class with buying power never before seen in countries like China and India, and yes, increasing extreme weather events.
Add these forces up and you have a recipe for a highly volatile supply chain with great risk for disruption. Managing this risk is a key challenge to retailers and processors of food and everything else the world buys and consumes. As I’ve said before, if you want to understand what is driving the significant uptick in all things "sustainable," you really have to see it as an umbrella term that really translates into "long-term risk management" strategy.
What this means is that companies that must continually procure, price and sell items at a profit in order to stay in business, need to get much better at understanding where the biggest disruptions and price increases are likely to come from – and find those who will be able to be the lower cost providers in the future because of natural resource access, good efficient practices, geographic location, export market shifts and a whole host of other factors. To do this, food retailers and processors need data – specifically, a lot more data about the likely long-term ability of the people they work with or buy from to continue to be in business over the coming decades.
What this means is that "sustainability" assessment is not a fad that only caters to a small subset of the Western consumer's green preferences and is most certainly NOT going away, but rather will expand as technology allows for capturing and processing more data than ever before. I have begun to think of the term "sustainability assessment" as really meaning "assessing your chances of staying in business over time."
With that background, I want to draw your attention to what one subset of the agricultural sector is doing to meet this challenge in a proactive way. Recently, the U.S. dairy industry released the result of years of multi-stakeholder work to define and provide guidance about how to measure key topics of sustainability that could be applied across the entire dairy supply chain. They created a consensus sustainability guide that incorporated perspectives from producers and co-ops, to processors and retailers. Their effort also worked with leading environmental and animal care academics and non-government organizations to create a guide for defining and measuring sustainability that is balanced, science-based and works for the sector. Take a look at the impressive list of members on dairy's Sustainability Council who oversee this effort.
Simply put, what the dairy industry has done – and continues to do, in terms of defining the sustainability issue for itself, is at its core, meeting the needs of its customers and consumers in managing the risks that face them.
By stepping forward in a leadership position, industry leaders certainly face risk – but they also are securing the best chance any industry has to define its own fate, rather than have additional burdensome and inaccurate assessments of someone else’s definition of sustainability, forced upon them. Which, by the way, are definitely in the works!
Right now, the dairy industry has put forward their Stewardship and Sustainability Guide for external stakeholder review and comment. Again, they have taken a brave step forward – embracing transparency and encouraging engagement rather than retreating to a fortress mentality. This is not an easy thing to do. It is far more comfortable to stick to a defensive approach. But on this issue, a defensive approach is only justified if the underlying drivers that are pushing sustainability assessments might be defended against. Can any sector push back global demand and spending increases projected by the Organization of Economic Cooperation & Development of 571%, or $32.9 Trillion by 2030 for the Asia Pacific region alone?
The dairy industry is doing an important and valuable service for the larger agricultural industry by diving into this issue, managing it and providing a constructive alternative to the otherwise very burdensome requests for information – that can often create an inaccurate perspective of the industry’s sustainability record because the assessment is so often created without the knowledge and input of the industry itself.
This effort is also launching a positive dialogue with more urban consumers -- who are the majority, by the way, on topics they care about. By arming consumers with knowledge about how sustainable the U.S. dairy industry is -- and demonstrating a commitment to continuous improvement, the industry is insulating itself from the unfair attacks that so often plague agriculture in the mainstream media.
With all that in mind, there is a very important role you can play in showing support for this leadership effort!
Simply, provide some comments into the review process. To learn more about the effort, here is a link to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s press release on the topic. You can access and download the guide at this website and if you are a dairy producer, you can provide comments here. If you are not a dairy producer, you can provide comments and feedback on this effort at this link.
Whether you decide to dive into this topic in detail and provide extensive comments, or you glance through the effort and provide a "good job," the important thing is to comment on this effort to demonstrate support for the process, for the leadership of this industry – and for the credibility of the product they are creating.
I have always been a champion of individuals and organizations that take their fate in their own hands, rather than allowing others to define them. Here is your chance to learn more about and provide input to a very important agricultural sustainability effort – one that could help all of agriculture stay in business in the decades to come . . . and isn’t that really what sustainability is all about?
Sara Hessenflow Harper is a strategic consultant at Vela Environmental and has been active in assisting the dairy industry on sustainability issues.