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LAS VEGAS, NV -- Sustainability means different things to different people, but for growers, marketers and others in the fresh produce industry, what major buyers and public policy advocates mean by sustainability may well take precedent in an individual company's operations over what that company might, internally, consider to be sustainable practices.

On Friday, April 23, the final day of the United Fresh 2010 convention, here, the entire day was devoted to the Global Conference on Produce Sustainability.

As the introduction to the conference stated in the United Fresh 2010 Official Show Guide, "many consumers, retailers and environmental groups are scrutinizing food production practices and want growers and processors to adopt new business models with enhanced emphasis on environmental protection and social responsibility. Sustainability has become the catch phrase to describe these efforts, and protocols designed to measure sustainability are being developed." Compliance will "impose new costs throughout the produce supply chain," and "United's members want to know how it will affect their businesses."

Diverse views on the topic were presented in the various general and breakout sessions of the conference.

Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science and technology for the Western Growers Association in Irvine, CA, discussed the development of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, or SISC, which, he said, will not impose standards but provides a yardstick to measure sustainable practices on the farm, in processing, in distribution, and at retail and foodservice.

The hope is that SISC will result in cost reduction, reduce the duplication of efforts, generate data to back up market claims, prevent the need for future regulations and allow for innovation, which rigid best-practice-type standards often do not, Mr. Giclas said.

The coordinating council for SISC consists of non-government organizations, growers-suppliers and buyers. Currently, 70 growers have committed to the pilot program, involving 15 crops, and the project has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Asked what the incentives are for participating in the pilot program, Mr. Giclas answered, "A voice in the process."

SISC is just one of several systems of metrics being developed to measure sustainability.

John Keeling, president of the National Potato Council, said, "Only through participating in these programs will you understand whether the metrics have benefit to growers" or to what extent they may be a hindrance to growers. "A lot of this is about getting credit for what you are already doing," he said.

Speaking on the subject of sustainability on the farm, Bob Meek, chief executive officer of Wada Farms Marketing Group, a potato grower and shipper based in Idaho Falls, ID, remarked that Wada Farms, established in 1943, has "practiced sustainable efforts for a long time" in its farming operations. "We always did it, but we used to keep it to ourselves," he said. "Now, we share it with our customers." Wada's sustainability practices are focused on the land and on the welfare of the employees, he said. "We need to do what is right, and we need to be recognized for what we do."

Sustainable practices, Mr. Meek noted, have been employed in agriculture since the time of the Incas at Machu Picchu, a 15th century Incan city in the Peruvian Andes. In the United States today, "on the whole," most farmers employ good sustainable practices, he said. Otherwise, "we would not be in business."

He cited three reasons for practicing sustainability in farming operations: customer expectations, the potential for improving business performance, and reduction of the impact on farming resources and the environment.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, WA, talked about the sustainability program Stemilt started in 1989, which the company calls Responsible Choice and which encompasses environmental, consumer and worker safety. The program has reduced pesticide and herbicide use by 50 percent and includes a 23-acre plot used for producing living (not sterilized) compost from farm wastes. Use of the compost, he said, improves the nutritional balance of the soil and reduces the need for synthesized fertilizer. The fruit from the 1,200 acres on which the compost is used also tastes better, he said.