- Author: Steve Elliott
Western IPM Center
Eco Apple. Lodi Rules. SIP Certified. Whole Foods Responsibly Grown. Salmon Safe. Sysco Sustainable. And that's just the beginning.
There are dozens of eco labels and sustainable agriculture certification programs in the United States, all designed to differentiate products in the marketplace and assure consumers that this apple, potato or bottle of wine was produced in an environmentally responsible manner.
But are eco-labeled products really better? And specifically, do they help drive the adoption and expansion of integrated pest management techniques that reduce pesticide risk?
According to certification program managers, growers and independent auditors, the answer is yes – eco-label programs do have clear benefits and promote more sustainable pest-management and growing practices. They also provide certain benefits for growers.
However, there are downsides for growers as well, and significant differences between the programs can make judging eco labels challenging for consumers. And with dozens of similar yet competing certification programs and standards, certification chaos is likely for the foreseeable future.
Eco Labels Work
Let's start with the good news – there's widespread agreement that eco labels and sustainable ag programs do improve farming practices, including IPM adoption.
“Absolutely yes, there's good evidence eco labels increase IPM adoption and reduce pesticide risk,” said Tom Green, director of the IPM Institute of North America, which has created the standards for multiple certification programs. “One thing that happens very quickly in these programs is that you bring up the bottom. Growers not using IPM who come into the programs have a lot of up-front work to do to comply, and you'll see a pretty dramatic difference one year to the next with these growers.”
Eco-label and sustainable-certification programs vary in their requirements, but most have a list of required and prohibited practices. In addition, most programs also include a longer list of practices or goals growers can choose from to earn points or credits toward the certification standard, enabling participants to enact the practices most relevant to their farms or ranches. Compliance is documented through a combination of paper audits and on-site inspections.
A list of prohibited pesticides is one feature that reduces pesticide risk in many of the programs. The United States Department of Agriculture's Certified Organic program is perhaps the most restrictive (and well known), but many other programs also limit or ban the use of the most-toxic pesticides.
In the Sustainability in Practice, or SIP Certified program that began in vineyards in California's Central Coast, the banned pesticide list is drawn from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation's most hazardous categories, including those known to cause cancer or reproductive harm, as well as toxic air pollutants and water contaminants.
“We started the program in 1998 as a self-assessment of vineyard farming practices,” explained Beth Vukmanic Lopez, manager of the program. “And we really saw the people doing the self-assessment improve over time. They'd compete with themselves, and improve their practices to get the extra five points.”
It evolved into a certification program 10 years later.
“In the early 2000s, we started seeing a lot of green claims in the marketplace and wanted a way to differentiate ourselves,” she said. “Ultimately we chose the certification program as a means of enacting this, so people could see all our rules online.”
Knowing a program's rules are important because the programs are different and promote different outcomes. Organic focuses on restricting the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Salmon Safe in the Northwest was designed to protect the region's waterways and wildlife. And SIP and Lodi Rules are broadly focused and include standards ranging from air quality to farmworker protection.
Jim Strollberg of Maverick Farming and Hampton Farming manages about 1,600 SIP-certified acres for multiple owners, as well other farms that aren't in the program.
“The SIP program makes you more cognizant of what you're using and how you're spraying,” he said. “It makes sure you have to justify all the sprays. On non-SIP properties, a couple of those ranches definitely spray more material than I do on adjacent ranches or others nearby, to get very similar pest-control results.”
Benefits for Growers
Participating in an eco-label program costs growers money, so those that sign up have calculated the benefit as worth the cost. Most cite three benefits: access to certain markets or buyers, improvements in their own farm operations and regulatory relief as actual quantifiable benefits.
“When I would speak with growers, I'd tell them this is going to be the price of getting on the shelf,” explained Steve Balling, who retired earlier this year as the director of agricultural research, environment and sustainability for Del Monte Foods. “More and more it's happening, especially in the fresh market.”
Whole Foods Market's Responsibly Grown program is a good example. With “good,” “better” and “best” subcategories, Responsibly Grown set minimum standards and anyone wanting to sell to the store has to achieve them to be considered.
It's happening in wine as well, Vukmanic Lopez said.
“You definitely see it in Europe and Canada, and a lot of restaurants are eco focused,” she said. “You'll see whole wine lists that are eco focused – organic, biodynamic or sustainably certified.”
Growers can use the programs to improve their own operations and profitability.
“There are absolutely economic benefits,” said Steve McIntyre of McIntyre Vineyards, one of the original SIP Certified growers. “It's not always altruism. I look for ways to do two tasks at once, which lowers my fuel costs and reduces pollution. It's faster, better and cheaper.”
Strollberg also uses the program rules as a good-farming guide.
“Educationally, it's a big help,” he explained. “It's a pretty good roadmap of options you can use, and it does help you think about what you're doing. It makes sure you're doing things with a purpose, and documenting them.”
Participating in certification programs can especially benefit smaller growers, Balling said.
“Growers can use these programs to improve their fundamentals,” he explained. “The big growers already have the data, but the smaller guys collecting it for the first time can really benefit.”
In some cases, participating in a certification program can bring regulatory relief. SIP growers, for instance, are required to do 10 of the 12 practices the local water quality control board needs documented, and accepts the certification as proof of those.
“It's hugely reduced the amount of paperwork growers have to do for the water board,” Vukmanic Lopez said. “The work's already been done and certified by outside inspectors.”
Negatives as Well
But for all the positives, eco labels and sustainability programs have their downsides and critics.
“I'm not particularly supportive,” former Del Monte manager Balling explained. “They add a generally unnecessary expense to a grower's production system, without fair compensation. Most, other than organic, generate zero dollars for growers.”
Sue Futrell, the director of marketing for Red Tomato, which runs the Eco Apple program in the Northeast, said sometimes Eco Apple growers get a small price premium for their apples – between the price of conventional and organic – but not usually.
“The ability to enter a market is more important than a price premium for many of our growers,” she said. “But it is a more labor-intensive way to farm in many ways.”
And it's not just field labor.
“They add to the burden on growers, particularly the paperwork burden,” Balling said. “Growers want to be out in the field, not sitting at a computer.”
The cost and number of programs a grower participates in – sometimes without really wanting to – are another issue. Large growers that sell to a number of companies have to meet the requirements of each, keep records for each and be inspected for each, which can lead to audit exhaustion.
“It's a grower's nightmare,” Balling said. “You can be subject to 10 or 12 inspections a year, and that chews up a massive amount of time and money.”
Even one certification is more than some growers want to pay for, Stollberg said.
“Some of the growers I farm for, the reason they're not in SIP isn't because they couldn't be,” he said. “They just don't see the value, or want to spend the money.”
A Crowded Space
Another problem with eco labels is that there are simply so many that consumers have a hard time knowing what they mean. Is Salmon Safe better than Responsibly Grown? Is Lodi Rules superior to SIP Certified? How does organic compare?
Those aren't easy answers. Consumer Reports has created a food-focused website at greenerchoices.org that compares labels and their requirements. It's a useful comparison tool, but misses some critical information.
Salmon Safe, the certification program in the Pacific Northwest, gets downgraded because it doesn't “prohibit toxic pesticides.” Which is true – to a point. Salmon Safe, which focuses on water quality and protecting salmon from pesticide harm, doesn't ban certain products outright, but it does specify what can be used near streams and how it can be applied.
And it's had some remarkable successes. In the Milton-Freewater area in eastern Oregon, growers adopting Salmon Safe practice helped reduce pesticide pollution significantly.
“We were able to reduce the maximum residue limits in water from 700 times higher than the benchmarks to below the benchmarks and that's been sustained for the last nine years,” said Clive Kaiser with Oregon State University Extension. “Milton-Freewater is a shining example of what's achievable when growers work together.”
The Greener Choices site also generally recommends organic, without noting some of the limitations of that certification program. For instance, organic rules allow one field on a farm to be managed organically, while other fields on the same farm can be managed with any registered pesticide. Salmon Safe requires whole farms to meet its certification standards, because the whole farm is part of the watershed it's trying to protect. And SIP has standards for farmworker protection that prohibit some dangerous pesticides that organic growers could use on their non-organic parcels.
McIntyre also thinks the organic standards don't provoke the level of thought well-written sustainability metrics can.
“With organic, it's ‘do this, you're in; do that, you're out,'” he said. “But sustainability metrics really get to the heart of an IPM program. You're keeping track of data and using that to make decisions.”
Making Programs Meaningful
Whatever their views on eco labels overall, people do agree that the certifications should be meaningful. Balling, for instance, generally a critic of the programs, joined the board of Protected Harvest, a Wisconsin-focused certification program, to try to ensure that it provided actual on-the-ground environmental benefits.
“We need to try to develop the metrics that work best and that are relatively simple for growers to use so we don't burden them with regulations that don't benefit the environment,” he said.
Green said the IPM Institute put a lot of effort into designing programs to do just that.
“We really work hard to put programs together that make a difference and don't just create busywork for growers,” he said. “We translate science, land-grant-university work and research, into criteria for these eco labels.”
Those criteria fall into two basic categories – practice-based criteria or outcomes-based criteria. Practice-based criteria ask about specific farming practices: Do you scout for pests? Do you use thresholds to decide when to spray? Outcomes-based criteria, also known as performance-based criteria, doesn't ask what you did, it asks for measurable end results: How much water did you use per unit of crop? How much fertilizer did you use per unit of yield?
“I think with practice-based, it's pretty easy to cheat the system,” Balling said. “In outcomes-based programs, we don't care how you did it, but did you reduce water use? Did you reduce nitrogen use? Are you keeping nitrogen out of groundwater, and nitrogen and phosphorus out of rivers and streams?”
It's creating outcomes-based criteria that gets tricky.
“What's a performance metric for IPM?” asked Kevin Scrivner, who is on the Vinea Sustainable Trust and a Salmon Safe partner. “It's a delightful challenge. How do you correlate IPM criteria into performance measures, not practice measures?”
For Scrivner, it's not an academic question. He's designing a new certification program for vintners in the Walla Walla Valley of eastern Washington and Oregon. They've been certified by the LIVE Program – Low-Input Viticulture and Enology – but feel that program is too geared toward the cooler, wetter Willamette Valley than their conditions.
And that gets back to having so many certifications that it's hard to know what matters.
“I said years ago we should expect complete chaos in the certification space for a while,” Balling said. “There's too many people pulling in too many different directions.”
Balling and others foresee a consolidation in the future, where several programs combine and align their criteria. Others predict a continued proliferation of locally meaningful programs, like Eco Apple in the Northeast or Salmon Safe in the Northwest. The future could bring both, where large processor-based programs align, and fresh-market programs localize.
“I feel for the consumer,” Scrivner said. “It's not a simple situation.”
The good news for consumers is the programs publish their criteria, so people can research them and choose products whose certifications are meaningful to them. People most concerned about synthetic pesticide residues on their produce can choose certified organic or Demeter Biodynamic. Folks most concerned about protecting wildlife can choose Salmon Safe. Those concerned about farmworker safety can look for Equitable Food Initiative-certified produce. And those looking for overall sustainability can look for broadly designed programs like SIP and Responsibly Grown.
Another thing consumers can do vote with their pocketbooks: Ask stores to stock products with meaningful eco labels, and buy those products even if they cost a bit more. That directly supports the growers who participate. Finally, consumers can educate themselves, and others, using factual information from university extension services, the Regional IPM Centers and other science-based sources.
“Consumer and shareholder advocates need to be better informed,” said the IPM Institue's Green. “We're seeing advocacy for banning neonicotinoid insecticides to protect pollinators, when there are some applications that can be done safely and the alternatives are worse. If apple growers can no longer use neonics after bloom, one alternative is pyrethroids, which disrupt biocontrols for mites and aphids and can end up increasing pesticide applications.”
Which leads to this bottom line: For eco-label certifications to bring about meaningful environmental benefits, they must be science based.
“We're very dependent on land-grant-university research and recommendations,” Green said. “Consumers and taxpayers need to advocate for the universities, because as we lose these resources it's very tough to get the science-based information we need to make these recommendations.”