Sustainable Agriculture Standards

As a representative of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance Board, I have been selected as a member of the Leonardo Institute's Committee to draft Sustainable Agriculture Standards for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) which is the sole US representative to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Yes, I know what many of you are thinking here: why do we need another standard?; Isn't the Organic standard enough, or isn't already too weak, and wouldn't a sustainable agriculture standard simply water it down? Believe me when I say that I share your concerns. But this is the reason I have agreed to join this committee. I believe that without the participation of small, organic farming advocates, a sustainable standard might simply end up as another greenwashing initiative which allows conventional agriculture to claim that it is sustainable. Despite my reservations about the process, I have agreed to engage in it for several reasons. First, I think it is really important that organic and small farming advocates engage in real dialogue with entities like Farm Bureau, American Corn Growers Association, and other advocates of conventional farming systems in a discussion about sustainability.

Too often, we overlook the things we have in common with these groups – first and foremost among them, an interest in the long term survival of American Farmers, and the economic sustainability of American farming – and instead choose to engage in policy battles that we are ill-equipped to win. These include issues such as organic integrity, GMO’s, small farming, and pesticide regulation.

I do not believe that these things are unimportant. I am simply suggesting that the monetary resources and lobbying clout of these organizations tend to trump the concerns of the sustainable/organic agriculture community. And that engaging in a dialogue with the organizations we have commonly seen as our enemies may be our best chance to find common ground upon which we might promote our agenda. In addition, I think that these organizations are seeing the writing on the wall: Americans don’t want poison in their food, nor do they want its production to be a significant source of water pollution, global warming, dead zones, and poor health.

Is it reasonable to believe that a process which engages such disparate groups as FB. ACGA. Defenders of Wildlife, IFOAM, Organic Trade Association, International Labor Rights Forum, Grocery Manufactuerrs Association, Rodale, Oxfam, Whole Foods, Defenders of Wildlife, American Farmland Trust, EPA, Kellogg Company and others can agree on a meaningful standard that will improve the sustainability of American agriculture?

I’m not sure. But I don’t think we have much to lose. On the contrary, I believe it is time we stop fighting each other and try to find some common ground. And if we cannot agree on what a sustainable standard should look like, and all that results from this exercise is a discussion which articulates the disagreements which separate us (GMO’s, commodity agriculture, industry consolidation, etc.) at least it may still function to build personal relationships between these groups which help us to find the places where we do have common ground, and can work together.

In this endeavor I am not suggesting that we compromise our values. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we embrace them, see where they connect and where they do not, in an effort to educate and relate to one another face to face, rather than through lawsuits and lobbying efforts, which those of us in the organic/sustainable community have almost always lost.

To learn more about this process, please visit http://www.leonardoacademy.org/Projects/SustainAgStdDevelopment.htm.

Also, learn more about why the Rodale Institute has chosen to engage in this process by reading the excellent article at http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20090226/nf2.

Your comments, concerns, and ideas about this issue are welcome. Please share them on our discussion forum, or send them to us at beginningfarmers@gmail.com

Although the Committee

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