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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Aligning Diverse Stakeholders Around Sustainable Agriculture

May 10, 2011 |

Field to Market - The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable AgricultureWhat began a little over four years ago as a dialogue initiated by Colorado-based, The Keystone Center, between a small number of conservation organizations, growers, food retailers, and agribusiness companies to encourage sustainable agriculture production and measures has since evolved into Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture

Field to Market is composed of 46 diverse stakeholders that include BASF, Conservation International, Monsanto, Environmental Defense Fund, National Corn Growers Association, The Fertilizer Institute, Syngenta, and the Nature Conservancy among others.  Field to Market’s mission is to bring these diverse stakeholders together to collaborate on and develop sustainable agriculture initiatives to meet the food needs of a population that will reach 9 billion people in 2050. Field to Market’s key objectives are to develop outcomes-based metrics and to measure the environmental, health, and socioeconomic impacts of agriculture in the United States in order to meet this challenge.

I recently interviewed Sarah Alexander, Director of the Environment Practice at the Keystone Center, to learn more about Field to Market’s story, overall goals, achievements, and hopes for the future.

The Interview

Q: What is the Keystone Center?

Sarah Alexander: We are a non-profit organization and we provide facilitation and convening services in energy, environment and health policy issues. We’re an independent organization and we are ourselves don’t take any particular stance on an issue. We view our job as to pull the stakeholders who are engaged in or involved an issue together, sometimes contentiously, to try to reach agreement to help public policy move forward.

Q: What was the reason for creating Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture?

SA: We were approached by several participants in the current dialogue, who recognized that this whole conversation around sustainable agriculture was not going away. This was about four years ago and, in fact, it was gaining importance in a lot of supply chain conversations and among commodity agriculture. The production methods and the producers themselves were largely not a part of the sustainability conversation. And the conservation organizations, who are at our table, had learned things from previous supply chain efforts, like creating practices and standards, that they thought were important to bring to bear on the (commodity agriculture) sector, which is the predominant agriculture production that takes place here in the US.

The conservation organizations were also tending to reach farmers that were already doing the right thing and rewarding them for good behavior, but not necessarily what we call in the group “moving the whole curve.” There was a real desire to think openly and broadly about what kinds of system can be put in to place to reach the vast majority of farmers.

Finally, the other piece for this particular context that made a dialogue focusing on commodity agriculture interesting is that even if you wanted to create some sort of standard that would result in a front of pack label, for example, on your box of cereal, that’s very complicated to do in a commodity based system in terms of chain of command, ownership and tracking that through the system, and providing any assurance that the consumers actually buying what they think they’re buying.

So those were all the reasons for the group coming together, and largely we have the same interests represented that we had at the beginning, only more of them – producer organizations, agribusiness, food companies, conservation organizations, universities. NRCS is also a participant given the role they play in supporting farmers in their conservation programs.

Q: Are the members of Field to Market interested in developing a front of pack label based on a sustainable agriculture standard?

SA: The groups that we convened said: “we don’t necessarily want to start with the presupposition that the standard is going to be the mechanism by which to force change.” And for a number of organizations, standards did not seem like the right way to go, so we’ve put our emphasis on other areas. The kinds of agriculture we’re talking about are also not as front of mind for consumers, so I think the food producers are perhaps a little less convinced that a front of package label is going to result in a premium or a consumer choice that might be different. The food companies and others said that there’s a lot we can do without having to get into the negotiations around a standard, around what a label should look like or say, which we think might divert the important conversation, which is to learn where do we stand today, what kinds of changes do we need to make and how do we go about making them? So, the focus for us has been less on a standard, but I think you will see producers who still find that model appealing if the standard is the right one.  And certainly it might be something that our work could inform over time, but it has not been our emphasis.

Q: How does Field to Market define sustainable agriculture?

SA: The group came to fairly early agreement.  It entails the UN definition, which is the broadly accepted definition. It’s about looking at increasing productivity while reducing its environmental impact, providing access to healthy foods and improving the lives of farmers and the communities in which they live. Our producer organization said: “well, if we’re going to do this we should actually be about improving the lives of future generations ability to meet their own needs.”

Q: Has the Field to Market initiative yielded any results thus far in terms creating sustainable outcomes for agriculture?

Details on 2009 Field to Market Environmental Indicators Report

SA: The first thing that we did was to take this idea of an outcomes based approach, and again this where the history of agriculture was to look at practices and then assume that if farmers are doing a certain set of practices that their outcomes are beneficial in some way, shape, or form. So the group first agreed on a set of metrics that are outcomes based. We agreed on 8 broad indicators that include resource use indicators, which are: energy, greenhouse gas emissions, soil conservation, irrigated water use, and land use; and then three more broader categories of socioeconomic, biodiversity and water quality. We were able to produce a report (Environmental Indicators Report) that looked at the big picture of how US commodities have performed over the past 20 years on the first five indicators. We were also able to agree on a methodology for how you might measure those.

Then the second piece of that was to create a Fieldprint Calculator, which is online and something that farmer’s can use to look at their own personal performance and benchmark themselves against national and state averages to see where there performance stacks up against those broad level resource use indicators at the national level.

We are also doing a major overhaul of the Fieldprint Calculator and the methodologies behind that. A number of our participants (Field to Market members) are piloting how they can work with growers on a more focused basis so farmers can not only compare themselves at that abstract state or national level, but also within their own peer group to really start to identify for them what might drive the most change in their performance as they go forward.

Q: How many farmers have used the Fieldprint Calculator?

SA: That’s a great question that we don’t have a perfect answer to. The group has really been sensitive to making sure that we’re developing things that are useful and viewed as in partnership with farmers.  One of the things we heard early on from farmers was a real hesitancy to share a bunch of information about their operations particularly if they didn’t know exactly how it was going to be used.  And frankly, the group’s point with the initial tool was really for it to be an educational awareness tool. So we did not collect any personal information about the farmer. We have had several hundred people use the calculator and as we go into this next phase, we’ll do a better job of capturing how many folks are going through it and actually using the information. We can’t, at this point, say definitively that 200 farmers have done this and it’s resulted in 23 changes at the field level, but we hope to get there with this next version.

fieldprint calculator to compare against environmental indicators report

The Fieldprint Calculator allows farmers to benchmark their farms' sustainability performance against local, state and national averages.

Q: How is Field to Market funded?

SA: All of the members around the table provide either cash or in-kind contributions to the effort.  We work on an annual dues cycle and everybody from the conservation organizations up through the food companies have a set of dues that they pay.  It’s on a sliding scale, so the companies pay more than the non-profits and associations, but it is spread throughout the membership so that everybody feels that they have an equal say and ownership of the product.

Q: What are the main challenges that Field to Market faces in terms of achieving its goals and objectives?

SA: The issues that we’re working on are incredibly complicated and difficult not so much from a controversy standpoint, but more from just an emerging science standpoint. We’re looking at things in different ways than they have previously been addressed, and so one of the tenets of the group is really to get the science right. I think one of the challenges is taking the time to do that part of the process while maintaining relevance in what is a very fast moving conversation globally. I think the other [challenge] is that it takes some work to maintain a coalition with the diverse interests that we have around the table.

Q: What does the future hold for the Field to Market initiative?

SA: I think in the near term the focus is too learn as much as we can about the work that we’ve already completed in terms of its utility from a farmer perspective and being something that can better support their decisions about their resource use and how it affects their environmental footprint. And from the supply chain [perspective] having more interaction and understanding of what’s happening at the farm level in crops that affect their products.

Then, also completing the metrics within the socioeconomics, biodiversity and water quality areas.  Water quality, in particular, has only gained in importance since we started this work so it’s one that’s a high priority to many around the table.  The third thing would be to start that broader outreach effort to make sure that the work that we’re doing gets broadly adopted beyond the members around our table. We’re already partnering with some group likes the Sustainability Consortium, which is working on these issues for all products.

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