Bet the Farm

Bet the Farm : How Food Stopped Being Food by Frederick Kaufman.

La Via Campesina, a global peasant movement, failed to translate unsustainable industrial agricultural practices – especially the monoculture of corn, rice, soy, and wheat – into economic terms.  In contrast, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) was formed to calculate the economic value of biodiversity and the costs of ecosystem degradation; “to render the Earth, the sun, and the rain into a market-delivered component.”

“Still, the growing ranks of eco-number crunchers persist in their conviction that sustainability can be counted.  They also believe that the discovery of this mathematical measure would be the greatest intellectual, social, and scientific achievement of our generation.”  According to Kaufman, this is the search for a sustainability unit which would allow us to compare the energy and resources required to produce various food items.

Professor Harriet Friedmann has coined the term food regimes to refer to an industrial agriculture-centric view of history.

The Muller brothers’ mega-farm in Yolo County, CA produces industrial tomatoes (sold to Unilever for processing) on a massive scale.

Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops has developed sustainability metrics to measure the total effect of a given food product across its seed-to-shelf lifecycle with an objective of improving sustainability by enabling comparisons.

SureHarvest is a sustainability consulting company offering quantification of sustainability practices.  They have developed what they call sustainability currency.  The Index and SureHarvest have a common (co-)founder, Jeff Dlott.  He’s also been helping Walmart develop a sustainability index.  Companies are preempting federal regulations by proactive development and self-policing especially in the wake of various produce contamination scares.  [I wonder what will happen after the first GMO scare.]

Other organizations developing a sustainability standard include the following.  There are more than 350 sustainability certifications.

  • Scientific Certification Systems
  • Forest Stewardship Council
  • ANSI
  • Greentick, New Zealand
  • Green Globe, Los Angeles
  • GreenBiz

Unilever has been conducting a big data program for agricultural sustainability since 1997 “but despite years of work, Unilever’s sustainability managers just could not manage to reduce all of the information into anything useful, such as a unit of sustainability.”  David Pendlington, Unilever’s sustainable agriculture program coordinator: early on “‘we got killed by data collection.'”  In the early 2000s, they narrowed data collection (for tomatoes from growers such as the Muller brothers) down to nitrogen application, water use, and crop yields.

In 2009 Walmart initiated development of its own sustainability labeling to provide consumers a red-to-green sustainability meter.  Their big challenge was how to account for disparate inputs.  For example, in the case of canned tomatoes how should they take into account the resources used to manufacture the can as well as the water used to grow the tomatoes?  The other issue was ownership of the data used in the measurements.

Physicist at the Applied Sustainability Center: “Sustainability is a clusterfuck.”