cows in field

New Sustainable Standards Raise Concerns

By Samuel Fromartz

Added October 7, 2008. “Sustainable” might be one of the most-used buzzwords in agriculture these days, but what does it actually mean? To answer that question -- and perhaps own the term itself -- a group has convened to set up standards that define sustainable food, fiber and fuel.

This effort, which began last year at the behest of a single certification company, has caused some trepidation in sustainable agriculture circles, since many groups use the term and don’t want it appropriated.

Like a sought-after goal or deep philosophy, sustainability has been less about the specific practices than the end point itself which broadly amounts to sustaining the planet for generations to come.
But if this term gets boxed in by standards, what goes in and what’s left out and who ultimately makes those calls? More importantly, how will a “sustainable” label, if it ever gets to that point, complement or compete with “organic”?

So far, no one has very good answers to those questions. But the effort right now is being attacked from sustainable agriculture groups with a long presence in the field and from more conventional interests concerned that the draft standards are too organic and ban genetically modified crops.

The Background

Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a certification juggernaut based in Emeryville, California, began pushing for the adoption of a draft sustainable standard in 2007. SCS has a long history of creating standards and is currently using the term certified “sustainable choice” for furniture and carpet makers. In addition, it created the VeraFlora label at the behest of Latin American producers, to certify sustainable practices in the floral industry, including labor standards. Two decades ago it launched the NutriClean label to certify pesticide free claims, though Consumer Reports notes that the label does not mean free of pesticides -- only that it has residues below the level set by Nutriclean.

In this recent effort, the standards are being drawn up under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which governs industrial standards across the board. The Leonardo Academy in Madison, Wisconsin, which is ANSI accredited, is organizing the work.

Among the goals, the standards aim to:

  • increase total terrestrial carbon sequestration on agricultural soils by a goal of 25% over the next 25 years;
  • increase the overall energy efficiency of agricultural systems by up to 30% by 2025;
  • reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural systems, including production, distribution and sales, by up to 30% by 2025;
  • encourage and increase local bio-regional production and consumption of agricultural products;

Notably, the standards do not cover any aspect of livestock or dairy production, which might immediately raise issues for advocates of sustainable mixed farming systems. It’s also a notable omission given the methane emissions--a potent greenhouse gas--from farm animals.

What groups like the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture are concerned about is whether the standard is needed in the first place, since so many already exist. And how wide will the representation of farmers, ranchers and NGOs (non-profit organizations) be on the standards committee? Although agricultural companies are represented, so far there are no individual farmers.
“... these efforts lack balanced input from the sustainable agriculture community or safeguards for rigorous verification and enforcement and they often emphasize factors inappropriate to the very nature of sustainable agriculture,” an email from the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture said.

Although the draft standards ban GMOs at this point and refer to organic as “best practice” in certain instances, they are not entirely organic. Others wonder how long the non-GMO language will last, especially with groups like the American Soybean Association, and National Corn Growers Association represented on the standards committee.

“At this point it’s pretty loosely worded and some practices prohibited by organic are allowed in the draft,” pointed out Natalie Reitman-White, sustainability coordinator for Organically Grown Co., a Pacific Northwest organic produce distributor.

Take crop production, for example. The draft standards state: “The Producer is required to apply least toxic pest and disease management and control systems, integrating organic practices as these are proven to be practical, with organic conversion time-frames to be determined on a per crop, per region basis.”

The Impact

This will clearly widen the tent to include those farmers practicing integrated pest management, but critics worry that such wording will end up watering down, supplanting or causing confusion about the difference between organic and sustainable methods.

Reitman-White thinks that sustainable should amount to an “organic and beyond” designation, which defines energy use, packaging and water resources, but doesn’t weaken the requirements of organic standards.

Some proponents think SCS is trying to bring some coherence to a vague term like sustainability, which if left undefined will become the fastest path to greenwashing.

“Companies are already using the term, marketing products with the label, but it has no meaning,” said Katherine DiMatteo, a consultant and former executive director of the Organic Trade Association. “So I think there was an opportunity to try and define what it meant.”

As to those left out of the process, she points out that many NGOs had an opportunity to become part of the process but chose not to join in. Reitman-White says that these groups didn’t want to legitimize a questionable process by signing up.

Some did, however, choose to become part of the process, including Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, and American Farmland Trust, among others. Several organic and natural food companies are involved too, including Earthbound Farms, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Markets and Amy’s Kitchen.

Despite the heat that the organic label gets today, from virtually all camps, what’s easily forgotten is that the label was created by a diverse set of interests who did not always see eye to eye. Consumer advocates, environmentalists, farmers, certifiers, retailers and food processors all came together to define what has now become the organic label.

The process took at least 30 years, and all the parties had a rough baseline of interests. But given the even wider diversity of interests represented by the sustainable standard, the process of creating organic rules might well look like a cake walk in comparison.

As DiMatteo said, “It could be potentially bigger than organic, but then again, it could blow up.”

More information is available at Leonardo Insitute’s website at:

Samuel Fromartz is the author of Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (Harcourt, 2006). His web-site is at and he blogs at