It is all about performance metrics — measures of an organization’s activities and performance. How buyers and even outside watchdog groups evaluate companies like Del Monte could lead to bottom line sales.

It sounds like a social issue where the tail is wagging the dog.

Balling said, however, metrics can be good if used properly to define advances in food production.

He readily acknowledged that agriculture has made “unbelievable” strides forward in the past 20 years. “It is amazing what we are doing today. The technology used in farming today is remarkable.”

Unfortunately, there are no metrics associated with advancements over the past decades — just stories. Food buyers and their customers do not want stories. They want numbers.

Unfortunately, Balling says the public and most food buyers think a “farmer is a guy in overalls with a pitchfork, or he is someone sitting in an office who calls up crop dusters” to spray chemicals on crops.

“Nobody knows the true story of agriculture. We have had trouble telling our story,” he said, adding that metrics might provide the opportunity to tell that story.

Balling said the widespread failure to give sustainability a definition everyone can agree upon has stymied any joint effort by industry to create uniform sustainability codes.

Western Growers, Del Monte and others were getting 14 to 15 audit requests each year from different buyers. About 40 companies decided to try to turn that back and create an agreed upon set of sustainability guidelines. However, the effort failed.

“It ended up overreaching,” he said.

Others are also trying, and there is a pilot project headed by scientists to create sustainable pesticide metrics. It involves 100 growers in 17 states and 20 crops.

It has proven a slippery slope because sustainability advocates want to write specific rules to follow. Balling said ever-changing weather and pest management makes that impossible to impose on growers and processors. “Ever year is different, and pest issues are different.”

Specific rules also create liability issues and they second-guess the EPA’s chemical registration process.

Balling prefers not to tell farmers how to farm, but to provide best management practice guidelines for growers to attempt to follow. Setting a goal such as a 10 percent reduction in water or pesticide use, and asking farmers to work toward that goal, are ideas Balling believes may work.

“It is the idea of trying to do better each year,” he said. Much of that would be driven by getting more food per acre, which is what will be demanded by food producers very soon to feed an increasingly hungry world.