What does sustainable agriculture really mean?

LEO StandardWe hear the words sustainable agriculture bantered about in various places. In fact, it is one of the top search engine phrases on the Internet. There are many farming associations with sustainable agriculture in their missions and many organizations with the term in their names. I believe the USDA organic symbol is the GOLD STANDARD of sustainable agriculture, but because the words are used in such a myriad of contexts, some clarification has long been needed. Before now there wasn’t a firm and definable definition of the concept. The Leonardo Academy recently announced a new draft standard named the LEO-4000 National Sustainable Agriculture Standard, which aims to define exactly what sustainable agriculture means. It will reward individuals and organizations who follow the standard with a new label.

I heard about the concept several years ago and thought to myself, “We just don’t need another label.” But then I spoke with my friends at the Sustainable Food Trade Association, and we all realized if the organic community didn’t show up at the table, the principles of organic might not be reflected in the sustainable agriculture standard. Subsequently, many organic companies sent representatives, including me, to serve on the committees and make sure organic was included as a vital component. The committee had broad representation, including producers, consumers, environmentalists, academics and Government representatives.

The purpose of the committees was to create a clear and comprehensive standard for sustainable agriculture that provides guidance to producers and metrics by which to conduct third party verification. They developed simplified reporting and clear communications up and down the supply chain, from producers to consumers. They developed branding so that consumers and producers can use and recognize the label.

The standard has four categories of achievements: General, Environmental, Economic and Social. Some of these categories are missing in the organic standards, so I appreciated the concept of broadening the impact. Voluntary participants can achieve four levels of performance: bronze, silver, gold and platinum, with each having specified prerequisites and a specified number of optional actions. Farms certified as USDA Organic may already meet a number of LEO-4000 Requirements!

Third party certifiers will be trained by the Leonardo Academy to ensure consistency and prevent green washing. It will be essential that they maintain independent objectivity, transparency and effectiveness to increase public trust in this new label.

You can download and read the standards HERE. Public comment on the draft standards began in December 2013 and will close March 4, 2014.

If you’re interested in learning more, the Leonardo Academy will host a webinar series on the standard. Webinars will be presented once a week and then posted on the Leonardo Academy web site for on demand viewing. REGISTER HERE for the next one! Once you have read and attended the webinars you can submit your comments by requesting a form from agstandard@leonardoacademy.org.

The schedule is:

¨   Tuesday, February 11, 2014, 12:00-1:30 p.m. CST

¤  An Overview of the Environmental Section of the Draft National Sustainable Agriculture Standard (LEO-4000)

¨  Tuesday, February 18, 2014, 12:00-1:30 p.m. CST

¤  An Overview of the Social Section the Draft National Sustainable Agriculture Standard (LEO-4000)

¨  Tuesday, February 25, 2014, 12:00-1:30 p.m. CST

¤  An Overview of the Economic Section of the Draft National Sustainable Agriculture Standard (LEO-4000)

¨  Tuesday, March 4, 2014, 12:00-1:30 p.m. CST

¤  Introduction to the Draft National Sustainable Agriculture Standard (LEO-4000)

As our food system becomes more complex and regulated, isn’t it time we had a standard that defined sustainability in agriculture? A standard that protects our natural resources and creates a safe and healthy work environment is innovative and much needed. ’There’s no reason not to have protocols that support our farm communities while rewarding innovative group and people. It’s a concept that has taken much time and thought from members of the broader community. Won’t you weigh in?

5 thoughts on “What does sustainable agriculture really mean?”

  1. There are several imperatives which are stated to be intrinsic to the organic movement: ecologically compatible, socially beneficial, healthy for consumers and workers, and protective of biological diversity. I believe that all of these fit handily under the umbrella of sustainability.
    So, if it is sustainable, can it be organic? Can synthetics be sustainable? How narrow shall the gate into the land of organic be?

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