What is Food Alliance?
Food Alliance is a 20-year old national nonprofit that provides third-party certification of sustainable agricultural and food handling practices. Food Alliance works with farmers, ranchers, food processors and distributors, verifying marketing claims so consumers can trust their food is grown and processed using sustainable practices. Food Alliance addresses a full range of concerns for labor, animal welfare, and the environment. As a sustainability standard, Food Alliance also requires continual improvement of practices over time.
How does Food Alliance define sustainable agriculture?
Sustainable agriculture speaks to our ability to produce safe, healthy, affordable food in sufficient quantities to maintain our population without degrading the productivity of the land, quality of life in our communities, or the resiliency of surrounding ecosystems.
As a word used to describe companies or products, “sustainable” speaks to whether there is a system in place to identify and ameliorate risks associated with those companies and their products, and to how well that system is operating. Sustainable is akin to safety. In the workplace, you are never completely safe; there is always the possibility of a job-related illness or injury. But you can assess the risks and take steps to reduce them. You can make the workplace safer than it is today. The best managers recognize that this is an ongoing process.
When buyers see Food Alliance Certified, they know the people behind the product are dedicated to continual improvement of social, environmental and economic performance.
Is Food Alliance a policy organization?
No, Food Alliance is about carrots, not sticks. We’re trying to use the growing market for more environmentally and socially responsible products as a positive means to encourage farmers and ranchers to voluntarily improve their management practices. Food Alliance certification is a tool that farmers, ranchers and other food-based businesses can use to differentiate and add value to products. Benefits that can be gained from this tool include improved customer relations and loyalty, sales increases, new markets, access to contracts, and price premiums.
What’s wrong with organic?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with organic agriculture. Growing food without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and with attention to soil health is a great improvement over the industrialized form of agriculture that’s prevailed in the last half-century. Organic is the first and most broadly accepted food eco-label, and the organic community helped start the sustainable agriculture movement.
But the national organic certification standard is not a total solution for all the challenges found in agriculture and the food industry. It doesn’t guarantee, for example, that workers are treated well, that animals are raised humanely, or that wildlife habitat is protected and enhanced. Many organic farmers are also dissatisfied with the national organic standard and use the term “beyond organic” to describe their individual efforts to address these and other issues.
The limits of the national organic standard are becoming increasingly clear as organic production becomes more common. Organic started as a philosophy and way of farming espoused primarily by smaller scale farmers that reflected their close and personal relationship to the land. But under the national standard, as more and larger companies enter the market, organic is in danger of being reduced to a substitution of inputs–natural for synthetic. Some newer organic farms still operate largely according to conventional, industrial, input-intensive models, using management tools and approaches that cause social and environmental concern. Under these conditions, converting a growing number of acres to organic production will leave many of the problems we currently see in agriculture and the food industry unresolved.
That’s why Food Alliance believes a different and more comprehensive approach is needed. To ensure the sustainability of our food system we need standards that take into account a broader range of social and environmental concerns and evolving management strategies. Rather than focusing largely on inputs, Food Alliance looks more holistically at farming systems and management practices designed to deliver best possible social and environmental outcomes.
Can't we change the national organic standard?
Because it’s codified in federal law, expansion of the national organic standard can’t happen quickly or easily. And we’ve already seen efforts by industry to weaken the existing organic standards. That lobby will strongly resist any effort to broaden or strengthen the standards claiming it will create unreasonable barriers to business.
At the same time though, consumers and progressive business interests are developing a more sophisticated understanding of the challenges in agriculture and the need for broader solutions. There is increasing recognition that if we’re truly concerned about the impacts of agriculture—on people, animals, and the environment—we need a different framework and additional criteria to evaluate how food is grown. That’s the change in the conversation that Food Alliance is helping make possible – whatever the inputs, are farmers and ranchers effectively managing the outcomes?
How does Food Alliance compare with organic on pesticides?
All farmers face threats to crops and animals from pests and disease. Food Alliance certification standards emphasize managing the farm in ways that help prevent the occurrence of pests and disease in the first place. As an example, farmers can rotate crops to prevent the build up of pest populations, or plant rows further apart to allow better air circulation to avoid problems with mildew. Food Alliance believes that if farmers and ranchers manage the land and agricultural cycles appropriately, they can reduce or even eliminate reliance on routine pest treatments.
The national organic standard includes lists of hundreds of “allowable” and “prohibited” materials, including pesticides, fertilizers and animal treatments. The difference is defined largely by whether the material is derived from natural or synthetic sources. Organic farmers do use pest treatments, but only those derived from natural sources. That is not to say that those allowable inputs do not pose risks to human health or the environment. After all, the difference between medicine and a poison can be as little as the dose or how it’s administered. As with other farming systems, organic inputs must be managed to limit negative impacts.
Rather than taking a natural vs. synthetic approach, Food Alliance requires farmers to show that they have taken appropriate steps to prevent pest problems, that they have evaluated the extent and likely economic impact of pest problems, and that they have chosen a mechanical or chemical response to the threat which poses the least possible risk to human health and the environment. For worker safety, Food Alliance certification further prohibits the use of certain commonly used pesticide ingredients that are acutely toxic to mammals.
Why doesn’t Food Alliance just prohibit synthetic inputs?
The organic line-in-the-sand (natural = good, synthetic = bad) misses the question of outcomes.
If there is a synthetic product that:
- is low in toxicity or used in very small quantities,
- is not highly mobile in the soil and unlikely to contaminate surface or ground water,
- breaks down quickly into harmless constituent elements,
- is applied appropriately by trained and licensed professionals in ways that manage human and environmental health risks,
- is effective in dealing with the pest or disease problem,
- is cost effective, and
- delivers better net economic and environmental outcomes,
Should farmers be required to use a natural product that:
- may be more toxic or require application in larger quantities,
- is more likely to contaminate water supplies,
- does not break down quickly,
- is applied by untrained farm workers or without regard to potential risks,
- doesn’t address the pest or disease problem as well,
- is more expensive, and
- delivers lower net economic and environmental outcomes?
This is obviously an exaggeration to make a point – not a blanket statement about the relative value of natural vs. synthetic inputs. The point is that farming is a science, not a religion. What’s important is to manage for best possible outcomes, not according to preconceived notions of right and wrong. Oftentimes the best choice will be a natural input. Sometimes the best choice may be a synthetic input.
It is also important to recognize that there are farmers who will be unable to qualify for organic certification, who will be unwilling for many reasons to follow organic practices, or who will assume unacceptable economic risks in doing so. Vineyards in the Northwest, for example, may be able to go 4 out of 5 years without synthetic treatments. But if there is a heavy outbreak of powdery mildew, the choice can be between losing the harvest or using a synthetic treatment that will invalidate organic certification and require a 3-year waiting period for recertification.
By taking a different approach, Food Alliance’s goal is to appeal to and make positive change across a much wider cross-section of agriculture.
How does Food Alliance certification relate to food safety?
As a sustainable agriculture certification, Food Alliance challenges certified businesses to assess and manage a wide variety of risks to human and environmental health. A number of the certification criteria, such as the expectation that workers have access to sanitary restrooms and hand washing facilities, contribute directly to food safety. Many others, such as criteria designed to prevent animal wastes or agricultural chemicals from entering the water supply, serve human and environmental health more broadly.
In addition to certifying farms and ranches, Food Alliance also certifies handlers–food processors and distributors–for their social and environmental practices, and to ensure the traceability of products they buy from Food Alliance certified farms and ranches. That certification process includes verification that handlers have plans and programs for ensuring food safely.
Is Food Alliance an advocate for small, family farms?
Food Alliance believes agriculture can be practiced responsibly at all scales, and under multiple ownership and management arrangements. But the best, most stewardship-minded farmers and ranchers are those who know their land and local conditions well, and those tend to be farmers and ranchers who have lived on that land for multiple generations.
We also recognize that the incentive for large-scale farms is often achieving the lowest price. It’s the logical outcome of commodity systems. Unfortunately, lowest price can encourage management decisions that jeopardize quality or environmental outcomes, and that undermine sustainability over the longer term.
Food Alliance believes that agriculture can be more sustainable at all scales. But we also believe that mid-sized and smaller farms and ranches have fantastic opportunities to differentiate their products based on social and environmental claims. The larger scale producers are paying close attention to the conversation about sustainable agriculture, but they may not yet have sufficient incentive to make the change. Mid-sized and smaller producers can get there first – and can arguably create lasting market advantages because of who they are and perceptions that they are innately more sustainable.
Is Food Alliance an advocate for local food?
It’s great that people are re-discovering the bounty and beauty of foods grown closer to home. Local food gives people a sense of place, connects them with the broader community, and creates important economic opportunities for small and beginning farmers.
However, we’re in some danger of letting our love affair with “local” eclipse other very important questions about our food. It’s very positive to take steps to localize food production and consumption to the extent possible – but, in many parts of the US, growing conditions and other constraints dictate that only a small percentage of food needs can be met from local production.
We also have to recognize that there are reasons why production of certain crops is centralized in certain regions. Oranges don’t grow in North Dakota, but they grow very well in Florida.
Like it or not, consumers will continue to buy and eat a wide variety of foods, and will want to have many of these foods available through large parts of the year. That means national and international trade. Given this reality, we’d better ask not only where our food comes from, but how it’s grown.
If we are concerned with improving quality of life, protecting the environment, and supporting local economies, we should certainly emphasize regional food production and consumption as one strategy for achieving those outcomes. But we must also look at how the food is produced, processed and distributed, and make decisions based on the best net outcome given our goals and concerns.