A feisty back and forth underlined an educational seminar on sustainability at the recent Organic Grower Summit.
Taking a Proactive Approach to Sustainability was moderated by Nikki Rodoni, CEO and founder of Measure to Improve and three industry experts rounded out the panel discussion: Ze’ev Barylka, marketing director for Netafim; Kevin Warner, manager of sustainable agriculture at SCS Global Services; and Bryan Duarte, senior sourcing manager for Walmart.
Nikki Rodoni moderated the session; with panelists Bryan Duarte, Ze'ev Barylka and Kevin Warner
“More and more growers are being asked by food companies to communicate everything from fertilizer efficiency to water efficiency to energy efficiency, as well as social responsibility,” Rodoni said, kicking off the session. “All of this is an effort by food companies to mitigate their risk in the supply chain and to also credibly market that their products are sustainably sourced. All of this being driven by consumers making a shift to more sustainable products.”
The time is now, Rodoni said, to own the sustainability narrative and be part of the unfolding efforts to certify growers.
There was skepticism in the audience as one grower asked Rodoni and the panel, “Who’s going to pay for this? If society wants sustainability – all these stickers and tags and government influence – are consumers willing to pay more for the products we grow?”
Moderator Nikki Rodini speaks with OGS attendees about the importance of sustainability
Walmart’s Duarte told audience members the retailer is committed to sustainability because consumers are starting to demand accountability. “The pillars of people, planet, and profits are important to Walmart,” he says. “We see no difference between being a responsible citizen and a successful business.” He also outlined Walmart’s ambitious plan of zero waste by 2025, while also focusing on the dignity of workers, “making sure the people we source from are doing the right thing for people that work and produce the products.”
Duarte says the sustainability wave, augmented by technology that will analyze food and food needs on the spot, is coming and everyone in the produce space needs to be ready.
Bryan Duarte of Walmart expands on sustainability from the retailer perspective
Netafim's Ze’ev Barylka agrees that technology will play a key role. He told the story of his company’s inception a half century ago, with an engineer noticed one tree growing in an area where nothing else was growing and wanted to know why. Turns out there was a leak in an underground water pipe, delivering water to that tree one drip at a time – and giving birth to precision irrigation.
Over the past five decades, Netafim has fine-tuned that precision irrigation predicated on data and improved technology and is now branching out into fertilizer management. It’s an effort to improve yields in the fields and Barylka says if Netafim can help farmers grow more with less, everyone wins.
Ze'ev Barylka of Netafim talked to attendees about the importance of technology
Communicating sustainability initiatives to consumers is a challenge. Walmart is starting to feature sustainability stories on their packaging to make sure consumers understand the initiatives made by certain growers. “I think someday soon there will be celebrity growers, just like we have celebrity chefs,” says Duarte. “When that happens, we will be forced to pay a premium price because consumers align with that grower’s values and growing practices.
Kevin Warner with SCS Global, a company specializing in third-party certification, validation, and verification for sustainability, and food safety and quality performance claims, acknowledges the sustainable space is currently ill-defined.
“We’re probably where food safety was 20 years ago,” he says. “So we work with clients looking to differentiate themselves in a confusing market. Through certification they can have clear messaging and that’s a real value.”
OGS educational session attendees heard from industry leaders about sustainability in the future
One long time grower took issue with the certification process, mainly because it does not define organic as a baseline. “I’m in favor of being economically viable and in favor of social equitability,” he says, “but the problem with sustainability programs is the environmental part. A sustainable grower can use round up and synthetic pesticides. That grower can use any product that is legal in California and still be considered sustainable. if you want to make sustainability a strong program, the farming aspect has to be organic and until that happens sustainability is just green washing.”
Moderator Rodoni objected to that characterization saying the sustainable movement is building on what organic is already doing, and Warner added that there are efforts to make organic the baseline but “from a business standpoint the real question is how the movement really takes root if conventional agriculture, which is still the vast majority, is not included."
Kevin Warner of SCS Global emphasized that sustainability has a long road for improvement
Warner says at this point the sustainable certification process is still evolving and as much as growers don’t want to hear it, “there is no finish line for sustainability. There is always room for improvement.” Rodoni concluded the discussion urging growers to take a proactive approach to green initiatives in order to avoid mandates and what she calls audit fatigue. “We want to be the healthy choice for consumers as well as healthy for the environment.”