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How sustainable is your food? Ask Field to Market

Rod Snyder, president of Field to Market:  The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, has over ten years of experience in eco-labeling.  FTM was founded in order to address the question of how US agriculture can better define, measure, and advance the sustainability of commodity crop protection across the United States.  This goal was extended across multiple crops, and there was a sense that environmental impacts of crop production needed to be properly assessed and measured, so that food producers could better understand the  sustainability footprint of the crops they were buying.  The effort would also help US farmers to understand the environmental foot print of their own crop production.

Eight key metrics were identified, at a field-sale level, to allow individual growers to track the environmental impact, soil erosion, and biodiversity of their crops.

The Fieldprint Analysis estimates field level performance on the following sustainability indicators:

  • Biodiversity
  • Energy Use
  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Irrigated Water Use
  • Land Use
  • Soil Carbon
  • Soil Conservation
  • Water Quality

Each of these measures is tracked for a given farmer’s crop, and is used by several manufacturers and retailers to demonstrate their commitment to responsible sourcing.  Key brands and retailers that utilize the FTM Fieldprint Analysis include Kelloggs, Coca-Cola, Mars, Dow, BASF, Cargill, and others.  The analysis provides an unbiased measure of agricultural sustainability.  As Amy Braun from Kelloggs notes, “Having a standardized metric facilitates our engagement with our supply chain. With the Fieldprint Platform, we’re all reading from same page on what constitutes improvement.  It also helps us align with our peers so we’re asking suppliers similar questions and reporting to our retailers in a similar way. It’s a really effective way of communicating what we’re trying to measure and improve.”

FTM is seeking to drive the metrics downstream towards the consumer.  Rod Snyder notes that “Over time we have tried to guide the industry to a true supply chain sustainability program – and trying to get major downstream companies like Walmart to make commitments around sustainable sourcing, and report on these impacts and the improvements we hope we occur.”  FTM now covers over 2.5 M acres of farmland, and is growing in its saturation.

One of the challenges of eco-labels in general is that there is still a lot of confusion on the part of consumers.  There is a tendency to “oversimplify” sustainability, and the use of multiple traits including “organic”, “GMO-free”, “gluten-free”, and others are confusing to consumers.  In fact, sustainability is an incredibly complicated concept to define, and opens up a credible science-based conversation to evaluate the differences between systems and the relative measure of crop foot print.  The FTM metric is agnostic, and not intended to launch policy discussions, and to ensure that a clear measure of sustainability is used in these discussions.

FTM does not have a specific label for its products, but decided instead to provide an online measurement tool to provide awards for continuous improvement.  They include the following “claims” that a farmer can make based on his/her production, including the “measurement claim”, an “impact claim” involving a demonstrated improvement in outcomes over 5 years or more.  This information is being used in corporate responsibility sustainability reorts, CSR reports, and in some cases, to underscore their own labeling.  For instance, Unilever recently used the report to claim that it’s Hellman’s Mayonaise was responsibly sourced using these metrics and scores.  While there is no specific evidence documenting the evidence of whether labeling makes a difference (due to the challenges of getting data), informal discussions with larger retailers suggests that sustainability certification does appear to have some “sales lift”.  Clearly, additional research is needed to understand the business reasons for why companies are investing in sustainable sourcing strategies. Some brands are actively tracking their sourcing metrics in the field, which can be aggregated up to a brand and product level.  This will require additional, more granular sourcing information.

A key takeaway from the FTM experience is:

  • To make the sustainability brand relevant, it needs to be tied to values that are meaningful to consumers.
  • Sustainability brands need to be tied to supply chain metrics that are based on scientific evidence, and promote the meaning of the effort.