The lack of a unified, widespread sustainability standard threatens the ability of U.S.-grown soybeans to compete internationally. That was the warning delivered by a panel of sustainability experts at the 2013 Commodity Classic conference in Kissimmee, Fla.
There’s a global movement to certify sustainably grown crops, said Tim Venverloh, director of sustainability for ADM. The international movement could have a big impact on U.S. producers, given that about one third of U.S. production is sent overseas.
"In Europe, they don’t want to buy products that would harm and encroach on biodiverse areas," said Venverloh. "We have global customers already asking how U.S. growers participate in biodiversity. This conversation is occurring, and if we don’t engage, change will occur without us."
Tim Call, vice chairman of the United Soybean Board (USB), who moderated the session, noted that sustainability rarely came up in discussion with buyers from China, the largest U.S. soybean export market by far. "Now we’re starting to hear some rumbling from China; some from India, too. The reason may be that they are exporting to countries that care [about sustainability] now."
Christopher Brown, head of ethical and sustainable sourcing for ASDA Stores, a British supermarket chain, says European consumers will gladly pay more for sustainably produced products. They expect to find sustainably produced products on the shelves of his U.K. grocery stores, just as American consumers don’t "expect to buy a sports coat made with child labor."
Venverloh noted that different regions of the world are using different sustainability standards. Some stress biodiversity; others seek to protect rain forests. In the United States, "We don’t have rain forests, and we don’t have consumer demand for sustainable production."
Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services for the Iowa Soybean Association, runs two sustainability programs, including one that informs farmers how much nutrients to apply, where and when. He encounters lots of farmer skepticism.
"Don’t they know I’m already doing a good job?" some farmers tell him. Other say, "Do customers really want to know how my beans are produced?"
"This is a global issue," said Wolf. Concern is growing about the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that "farmers manage on a daily basis."
Wolf brought the audience up to date on STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System), a voluntary program in seven states run in conjunction with land grant universities. More than 500 farmers are sharing information on nutrients, energy use, and soil to create a data base. The organization is developing action plans to help farmers achieve continuous improvement.
"If we can cut our inputs, it will benefit the environment," said Call, noting it’s not a good thing when fertilizer winds up in our water supply.
The lack of a unified standard in the U.S. forces consumers to educate themselves.
"Right now we’re expecting consumers to read labels and fully understand how the products they purchase help or hurt a particular portion of the world," said Venverloh. "If all the products on the shelf are certified sustainable, that problem goes away."
Brown said that U.S. soybean producers need to be careful not to over-promise as the growers of organic produce did. Organic production, he said, was pitched as the solution for everything, including climate change. "You need to over-deliver," said Brown.
"These are still uncharted waters," said Vernerloh. "We have to go into this eyes wide open, remain engaged in our trade associations…We need to recognize these changes as opportunities, because it’s really in change that we have an opportunity to grow."
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