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Produce’s role USDA’s sustainability push

Sustainability is here to stay—at least if USDA has anything to say about it.

On February 20, secretary of agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a wide-ranging Agricultural Innovation Agenda for USDA. The main goal? To increase food production by 40 percent by 2050 while reducing the environmental impact of agriculture by half.

“We know we have a challenge facing us: to meet future food, fiber, fuel, and feed demands with finite resources,” said Perdue. “USDA’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda is our opportunity define American agriculture’s role to feed everyone and do right as a key player in the solution to this challenge,”

The program has four major components:

  1. To devise a research innovation strategy that “aligns and synchronizes private and public sector research,” according to a USDA statement;
  2. To “align the work of our customer-facing agencies and integrate innovative technologies and practices into USDA programs”;
  3. To revise USDA productivity and conservation data (“USDA already closely tracks data on yield, but on the environmental side, there’s some catching up to do,” the department concedes); and
  4. To set benchmarks for accountability.

“Congratulations to USDA for [the] USDA innovation plan,” tweeted Kathryn Boor, dean of the Cornell  University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, saying it “shows that ag research is a national priority.”

The response of the Produce Marketing Association was cooler. “We applaud USDA’s efforts to streamline research efforts and develop new tools that will increase sustainability of agricultural production,” said a PMA official statement.

But it went on to say: “While we welcome efforts to promote agricultural sustainability, our production practices are distinct from those of row crops and our industry is unique in another important way: produce and floral are highly perishable. Market fluctuations and even minor weather events mean million-dollar losses. Sustainability and viability of our operations critically depend on demand creation and predictable opportunities to sell produce and floral at fair market values.”

PMA also called for “responsible data management so that the industry has real incentives for sharing proprietary data with our federal partners. Importantly, we need to be clear-eyed about the fact that the implementation of new practices will have a real cost.

“Because we will step up, we need to know that the financial burden associated with the implementation of these practices is not ours alone to carry.  Everybody along the supply chain, who plays their part, needs to know that their efforts are incentivized through responsible government programs.”

In short, sustainability has real and measurable long-term benefits, but it also has equally real short-term costs. Who is going to bear these costs?

Produce growers are already squeezed by increased costs and supply irregularities (labor in many regions, water in places like California) without compensating price increases. How will sustainability goals fit in with these facts? This is a question that USDA efforts will need to address.

“Sustainability means first of all, that commercial operations are economically sustainable,” said the PMA statement.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.