Consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for foods they believe were sustainably produced, like free-range chicken, fair-trade coffee and pesticide-free wine. But what does “sustainable” actually mean?
“There’s not necessarily just one certification that people are going to find stamped on their food that says, ‘This is a sustainable food product,’” said Rob Myers, who is one of the directors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. “We don’t have that yet and we’re not likely to have it any time soon.”
The USDA’s definition of sustainable, which dates back to the 1980s, includes three broad goals: Sustainable farming means using practices that aren’t harmful to the nation’s land, air and water; that are economically viable; and that improve the quality of life for farmers, ranchers and their communities.
That definition doesn’t necessarily include “natural,” “organic” or “local,” according to Myers.
“‘Local’ in itself does not necessarily connotate ‘sustainable,’” Myers said. “Because as you’re implying, you could have a lot of pesticides applied, or you could have a farm that is not preventing their soil from washing away or contaminating local water sources, or doing other things that most people would say, ‘That’s not very good from a sustainability standpoint.”
Some retailers are capitalizing on the consumer demand for foods produced in environmentally friendly ways and using labels to indicate which of their products are sustainably produced. Like Whole Foods, which is unrolling a new sustainability ratings system on all of its produce and flowers in September. They will rate these items on labels as “good”, “better” or “best” and each rating will correspond to the way the product was raised.
“We have had customers asking about sustainability: ‘How is this particular kale raised or where do these flowers come from? What is the sustainability of our earth? How do the plants work into that? How does this affect my health?’” said Margaret Wittenberg, global vice president of Quality Standards and Public Affairs at Whole Foods. “Especially as people are told to eat more fruits and vegetables, that's an important question to ask. So we want to be able to give the tools to our customers to make these better decisions for themselves.”
Many other retailers now include sustainability in their missions, including Safeway, which wants all of its pork suppliers to phase out keeping sows in gestation stalls. Chipotle is trying to source all of its chicken from suppliers that don’t treat their birds with antibiotics or include additives in feed like arsenic. McDonald’s announced in early January that it plans to begin purchasing verified sustainable beef in 2016, though it has yet to define its exact qualifications for the meat. Wal-Mart is gauging sustainability in part through requiring suppliers who use commodities like corn, soy and wheat in their products to develop fertilizer management plans, with the goal of reducing the amount of fertilizer applied to farmers’ fields.
With retailers looking to provide more food they can market as produced with environmental impacts in mind, food producers have taken notice.
On his farm in Rocheport, Mo., Bill Heffernan remembers when Whole Foods approached his Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative five years ago and asked farmers to begin selling the company humanely-raised meat. To meet the first step in Whole Foods’ 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards, farmers had to prove they did not house their sows in metal stalls called farrowing or gestation crates.
“When Whole Foods came to us, they asked us to meet five steps,” Heffernan said. “Some of our members still are at the Stage 1. Many of us are up at Stage 3. That means our animals do have access to outside space. We don’t use farrowing stalls.”
Heffernan says getting “step-certified” by a Global Animal Partnership auditor takes time though, and costs him about $1,500 in annual fees. That can be a barrier to entry for small farmers.
“First of all, they look around the property for about two hours and then sit down, and you’ve got this booklet to fill out like as if it’s never going to end,” Heffernan said. “And I’m saying, ‘Just for 300 pigs, I’ve got to answer all these questions?’”
But he agrees that these quality audits and piles of paperwork allow Whole Foods to charge more for his humanely-raised meat.
“The consumer needs the guarantee or the whole system falls apart,” Heffernan said.
In truth, no one wants their food to damage the environment. And now shoppers can put a price on what they care about. But with so many definitions of sustainability out there, how do consumers know what is and isn’t worth paying extra for?
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Eric Cartwright, executive chef for campus dining services at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Cartwright’s in charge of making sure 2.5 million meals a year get served and in a perfect world, all of them would be sustainably produced.
"Our approach is to really look at what practices are being used on the farm: Are they good sound practices that allow that farm to continue without having to put a lot of artificial resources into it? Whether that be … 5 miles away or 500 miles away. And especially as we work with a lot of our smaller farmers, there’s the relationship that happens,” Cartwright said.
But since it’s not possible for everyone to have that kind of close relationship with the farmers and ranchers who grow and raise our food, consumers will have to rely on information that retailers and restaurants provide on labels and menus.