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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Certification Org. Pushes Consistent Commitment to Sustainability in Agriculture at Every Step of Production

March 22, 2012 |

With incredibly comprehensive guidelines on environmental stewardship, social responsibility and animal welfare, Portland-based Food Alliance is making it easier to identify producers who demonstrate a true commitment to sustainability.

Food Alliance is a nonprofit that develops stewardship guidelines to help define sustainable agricultural practices and provides third-party certification of sustainable agricultural and food handling practices. It began in 1993 as a joint project of Oregon State University, Washington State University and the Washington State Department of Agriculture to create market incentives for the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices. In 1997, it was incorporated and began creating its first guidelines, initially for fruit and vegetable growers. It later added certification for dairies, meat producers, processors and distributors and continues to expand its reach. Most recently, Food Alliance has added guidelines for shellfish, and is in the process of creating guidelines for nursery certification. It has also expanded into the food service sector, universities in particular, to bring healthy, socially and environmentally responsible foods to campuses.

So how exactly is Food Alliance certification different from other certifications? Says Food Alliance Executive Director Scott Exo, “In general, I think one of the things that distinguishes us is the breadth of issues that [the certification] covers. A very small number of certifications combine social criteria, such as labor conditions on the farm… with environmental criteria. We combine animal welfare, environmental and social criteria, and among the environmental criteria we have a fairly diverse array of considerations.”

Workers at Oregon-based Cal Farms, A Food Alliance Certified Farm

The Food Alliance guidelines aim not only to promote sustainability in agriculture and the food industry, but to ensure safe and fair working conditions, humane treatment of animals, and careful stewardship of ecosystems. Their standards of excellence include protecting and enhancing biodiversity and water resources, conserving energy, reducing the use of pesticides and toxic materials, supporting safe and fair working conditions, ensuring humane animal treatment and guaranteeing product integrity.

Food Alliance certification is particularly distinctive when it comes to mid-supply chain players, such as processors and distributors. While other certifications, such as organic, mainly focus on traceability and ensuring that the organic integrity of the product remains intact, Food Alliance allows these operations to showcase their own socially and environmentally responsible practices. There’s a consistent commitment to sustainability at every step of production.

“We think it’s pretty important in our definition of sustainability – all of those pieces have to be present and accounted for in the larger framework,” says Exo.

Creating standards for all of those different pieces, though, is no picnic. Exo describes the complexity and comprehensiveness of the guidelines as being “both a blessing and a curse.” He explains, “It’s a blessing for consumers because it’s so inclusive… It’s a curse sometimes because writing and maintaining criteria in all of those areas is a very serious endeavor.”

He’s not kidding. Creating and shaping the guidelines is a lengthy and complex process. When creating new guidelines, Food Alliance must first figure out who the most qualified experts and opinion readers are in a particular field – whose expertise, knowledge and opinion needs to be incorporated. It often hires a consultant with expertise in a specific production system to lead the research and drafting of a first version, in conjunction with Food Alliance’s certification director, Karen Lewotsky. The consultant will create a draft that is then vetted by a small group of experts. Once their comments have been incorporated, it’s vetted by a larger group. As Exo puts it, “It’s a series of widening circles of input that lead to a final draft that is then tested – tested on two or three farms who volunteer to be the subject.”

A Household Label?

Exo says that on the national level, Food Alliance has concentrated on communicating with industries – retail, wholesale, food service – and has become pretty widely known in that arena. But it still has a ways to go in terms of consumer recognition.

“We’re surprised when companies like Walmart and Unilever mention Food Alliance in their sustainability work,” says Exo. “We’re also surprised when people in other parts of the country say ‘Food Alliance, what’s that?’ We experience both phenomena. We have not arrived at the point where Food Alliance is anything near a household term with consumers. We are gratified that we have fairly widespread recognition in the food and agriculture trade.”

The acknowledgement that Food Alliance has received is especially remarkable considering the size of the operation. With a staff of eight people and a budget of about $850,000 annually (about a third of which comes from certification and the rest from grants and contributed income), Food Alliance has managed to carve out a niche for itself among the large global nonprofits.

“We’ve started as a very small grassroots effort in one region…and we are endeavoring to operate on a national platform. Managing that sort of organic growth is challenging,” says Exo. “It’s gratifying to receive the recognition and acknowledgement alongside those bigger programs. But at the same time, we don’t have the deep pockets and the large resources that those programs do…In some sense we have to be ‘The Little Engine That Could.’”

While there do seem to be a growing number of certifications in the marketplace, there also appears to be a very real place for Food Alliance certification. Says Exo, “We hear frequently that there are many [certifications] and that there is too much confusion. I don’t subscribe to that. There are lots of claims, but not many certifications.”

He points out that in a free market system that emphasizes consumer choice, it’s a little ironic that people expect there to be just one type of certification.

“I think that some level of diversity in certification and approaches is a strength,” he says. “Biodiversity is a strength in terms of ecosystems, why can’t that be true of certifications as well?”

What is a valid concern, says Exo, is “audit fatigue” – producers who decide to get multiple certifications having to undergo individual inspections for each certification. To make it easier on producers, Exo imagines that there will be some “consolidation and streamlining in the processes necessary to validate the claims.”

“Organic is here to stay, and makes a very large contribution, and is very important; but it leaves a number of issues out, as many of us easily acknowledge,” he says. “The question is how to get [producers] an organic and a Food Alliance certification in one audit. So I think we’re going to begin to see more of that.”

Looking Ahead

If Food Alliance’s growth since its inception is any indication, it appears that we can expect exciting things in the years to come.

“One of the things we keep close track of is growth in our certification programs,” says Exo. “In 2011, which was arguably still part of the global recession, the number of certifications went up 15 percent.  We feel really good about it. Not so long ago, people said ‘oh, this is a fad, people won’t be able to sustain that’…that’s not our experience. We’re seeing consistent growth, often double digits, year on year.”

One of Food Alliance’s goals is to expand a meaningful presence to other parts of the country. In addition to its Portland hub, Food Alliance is currently engaged in the mid-Atlantic region, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and hopes to replicate that type of regional partnership in other parts of the country.

Exo says that one of the things that gives him the most hope for the future of sustainable agriculture is seeing the next generation of farmers incorporate new, sustainable methods. He gives an example of a young female rancher named Cory Carman, of Carman Ranch, who converted her ranch to a grass-fed operation. Her successes include a recent partnership with a hospital in Portland that will use her meat in burgers for its in- and outpatient facilities.

“That’s my biggest source of optimism, seeing more and more young people taking risks, being willing to keep the best parts of the old but incorporate the best parts of the new,” says Exo.

He adds, “My greatest sense of encouragement comes…on a micro scale. Of late it comes most vividly in the stories and examples that I have the privilege to encounter among a new generation of farmers and ranchers, who are hearing what’s happening out there among consumers, and the hard questions, and the concerns about how our food is grown and where it comes from, and they’re turning that into opportunity by responding very meaningfully to that call for better food. There are young people who are coming back to the ranch or back to the farm and they’re coming with eyes wide open about the challenges…but they’re also coming with new tools to make better decisions that lead to better outcomes on the ground and to communicate better with consumers about what we do.”

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