Feit points out that even some in the WPVGA don’t fully understand what Healthy Grown represents. “To try to communicate that to a consumer with a 30-second commercial or a poster?” he asks. “Without a big marketing budget, it’s hard to explain that complex message. Even if we spent our entire promotions budget, it wouldn’t be enough.”
A sustainable potato can be a hardthing to love. To begin with, consumers don’t tend to fuss over potatoes in the same way they do apples or other produce. Botanically there are scores of different options for both plants. But while most people can wax on the relative merits of a Fuji or a Cortland, potatoes don’t engender such opinions. There are exceptions, of course, but for many shoppers, a bag of potatoes is still predominantly a bag of starch.
But most of the confusion seems to come from the concept of sustainability itself. One reason organic has become the gold standard for consumers is a relatively simple definition—food grown with no synthetic materials—that most people can grasp. At its root is a rejection of pesticides for personal and environmental health reasons. While there has been continual skirmishing over control of the details, there is a strong alternative production base along with a watchdog core of educated consumers.
Sustainability, on the other hand, is a murkier ideal. The general principle—that your methods of production can be maintained over time—seems simple enough, but it has become a gathering point for debate. There are numerous existing and ongoing efforts to define the term for trade. Just one example: The Leonardo Academy, based in Madison, is developing a scientifically measured sustainability standard under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute. ANSI standards help regulate everything from paper size to eye protection. But when Leonardo introduced its draft standard in 2007, a firestorm ensued, leading the committee to scrap its work and start from scratch. The group has six task forces still working out just how to define sustainability. Then they’ll have to figure out how to measure and monitor that definition. Similar discussions are taking place around other proposed standards, including the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops and the Field to Market program of the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.
“Sustainability has become a buzzword,” says Jed Colquhoun, a CALS associate professor of horticulture who works with Healthy Grown. But despite his association with the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, he won’t offer up a quick definition. “We’re coming up with a new name that doesn’t involve sustainability, because it’s such a nebulous and difficult term,” he says. “It depends on who you ask and which value filter you run that through.”
For example, while most consumers regard organic as meeting the standards of sustainability, the bigger picture isn’t so clear. Is the price premium on organic produce sustainable with 20 percent of U.S. families struggling to put food on the table? Is the production capacity of organic systems sustainable enough to meet the demands of feeding more and more people using less and less land? The truth is the challenges facing agriculture and the environment may be bigger than organic alone can handle.
“Organic isn’t the solution,” argues Jeb Barzen, of the International Crane Foundation, one of the organizations supporting the Healthy Grown program. It’s a lesson he learned from a soybean farmer in western Minnesota. The farmer cultivates organic fields, but he also grows soybeans using a ridge-tilling technique that leaves the valleys between rows untouched by the cultivator. Plant matter accumulates and non-crop species take root, making the ridge-till fields less prone to soil erosion. The catch: The ridge-till fields do require some pesticide use.
So which soybean crop is more “sustainable”? The organic field produces healthy food, but perhaps at a greater expense to the land and surrounding water. The ridge-till field requires accepting some chemical use in exchange for other benefits, including clean water and nesting for upland sandpipers, which won’t take up residence in the organic field.
“Healthy Grown is an attempt to look at all of those resources coming off the land at the same time—habitat for cranes, habitat for lots of other species, productive agricultural fields—because these fields need to be productive in order for people to retain them. And they also need to produce clean water, healthy soil, rural aesthetics, possibly carbon sequestration and so on,” says Barzen. “The real challenge is figuring out how to fit this into a market system that, especially for commodities, likes sound bites. It doesn’t like complication, and that’s essentially what we’re selling.”