Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Standards for the term "sustainable agriculture"

The Agricultural Law blog today links to an interesting controversy about the definition of "sustainable agriculture."

Under guidelines from the non-governmental but influential American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the Leonardo Academy is gathering stakeholders and experts to discuss standards for this widely used term. The academy, a Wisconsin-based non-profit "think and do tank," described the process in a press release (.pdf) yesterday.

USDA, which prefers a broader definition of the term "sustainable agriculture" than the draft under discussion, has petitioned (.pdf) ANSI to revoke the accreditation for the Leonardo Academy to lead this standard-setting process. The Leonardo Academy has responded (.pdf).

[Update 10/1/2008:] The proposed ANSI standard setting process has generated opposition from some longstanding sustainable agriculture advocates. Kathleen Merrigan at the Friedman School points out a letter that she and a few dozen others sent (.doc) Aug. 19, urging participants to consider a long series of concerns before pursuing the proposed approach. The concerns include potential overlap with the existing organic standards, the adequacy of farmer and farmworker participation in the standard setting, the capacity of any new definition to accomodate changes in sustainable agriculture practices as they develop, and the need for long-term enforcement of any new standard.

This is more material than I have been able to absorb yet, but it seems to offer an interesting mix of policy argument about both substance and process for defining what has until now been a fairly inclusive concept.

1 comment:

foodsleuth said...

As a proponent of media literacy/critical thinking as it applies to the food system, I appreciate this post, and the Leonardo Academy for attempting to find consensus on the definition of the term. At the SARE meeting in Kansas City last spring, I concluded that the term "sustainable" was analogous to "natural" -- it meant little but lots of folks were scrambling to use the term, and the word painted both a rosy and fuzzy image. At the American Dietetic Association's annual meeting in Philadelphia last October I bristled when I saw McDonald's boasting the "S" word. At the SARE conference, the dinner speaker had previously told me that she uses rBST on her dairy herd, yet considers herself "sustainable."
As a journalist and dietitian, my role is to help clarify these terms for the public, and hold those who use the words accountable.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.
Food Sleuth, LLC
Columbia, MO
foodsleuth@mchsi.com