On Monday, after several years of working with the Leonardo Academy to produce sustainability standards, over 50 commodity and farm organizations representing U.S. production agriculture interests withdrew from the effort en masse.

According to Leonardo Academy’s Web site (http://www.leonardoacademy.org/) the objective of the sustainability standard initiative “is to establish a comprehensive, continuous improvement framework and common set of economic, environmental and social metrics by which to determine whether an agricultural crop has been produced and handled in a sustainable manner.

"A national standard for sustainable agriculture has the potential to address a range of stakeholder needs, including supporting producer efforts to adopt sustainable production practices, establishing a framework for continuous improvement along the agricultural supply chain, providing a means of clear communication of sustainability achievements and harmonizing the myriad of sustainable agriculture standards that are currently in place or in development.”

Among the many groups that pulled out of the process were Farm Bureau, the American Soybean Association (ASA) and USA Rice Federation.

Ron Moore, an Illinois soybean producer and ASA board member who had been active in Leonardo committee leadership, said the pullback decision “was not made easily. It means walking away from nearly two years of investment … in an effort to produce an ‘on-farm’ standard. However, it is clear based on actions this past summer that any continued effort cannot and will not overcome the serious systemic limitations and chronic biases that are inherent in the structure the Leonardo Academy has set up for this initiative.”

Leonardo Academy, says Reese Langley, USA Rice Federation vice president of government affairs, “tried to bring in stakeholders including production ag groups along with various environmental groups and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to develop an industry-wide sustainability standard for agriculture.”

The USA Rice Federation wasn’t a formal member of the group.

“We were more of an allied partner, if you will. We were involved in some of the work groups but had no actual vote. Some of the larger agriculture groups like Farm Bureau were voting members.

“So, we worked through the process for several years trying to come up with sustainability standards. There were particular focuses on social standards, economic standards and others.”

At the end of the day, the environmental and NGO groups strong-armed the process, say those Farm Press has spoken with.

Mainstream ag groups

“They had more votes than agriculture did and were trying to push things that were unworkable in the view of the majority of the production ag groups,” says Langley. “Mainstream agriculture groups made a joint decision to pull out of the effort and pursue other options.”

Langley is largely echoed by the ASA’s Moore who said his organization would look at other options. “U.S. farmers are very much dedicated to the long-term sustainability of their farms and their farming practices. For this reason, farmers will embrace an achievable roadmap for the environmental, social and economic aspects of sustainability, but only if they are part of its development. We are committed to working toward such goals in the hope that widespread adoption will contribute to real sustainability of American agriculture.”

The USA Rice Federation will now shift attention to Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.

“We’ve been a part of the Keystone process for about (18 months), now. Keystone includes environmental groups but is much more a consensus-building process,” says Langley. “It’s more results-based and not necessarily trying to dictate certain practices like organic.

The organization’s Web site (http://www.fieldtomarket.org/) contains initial benchmark studies for four crops: cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat.

“Those are an attempt to measure where those crops are on an environmental basis, what their footprint is, and how things have improved over the last 20 years,” says Langley.  

The benchmark study for rice was recently completed.

“That will be added to Keystone’s material in a month, or two,” says Langley. “They provide a ‘field print calculator’ that allows a farmer to go in, put in data from their farm and see how it compares it the industry average on an environmental basis. Things like soil loss, water use, energy use, land use, and climate impact are covered.”