The world is headed for a food crisis as societies struggle to figure out how to feed the 2.7 billion more people who will be on earth in 2050 than there are today.

The catch-22 of that challenge? Arable land needed to meet that daunting challenge is disappearing as the population grows. Agriculture must produce much more with far less resources to feed the world in 40 years.

The scenario is being muddled in the current era of agricultural sustainability, a term that defies a universal definition. For sure, most definitions transcend what goes on in the fields, involving such issues as whether labor contractors are properly feeding and housing farm workers in New Mexico.

That is the question giant big box retailer Costco put to Steve Balling, director of agriculture and analytical services for Del Monte Foods, Walnut Creek, Calif., the week before he spoke on “Measuring and Reducing Your Pest Management Footprint” at the 39th annual California Association of Pest Control Advisers (CAPCA) conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Balling used it as a drastic sustainability measurement.

Balling holds a doctorate in entomology from the University of California, Berkley. For 22 years, he has worked with Del Monte Foods in developing an award winning integrated pest management program. He oversees pesticide use on 17 fruit and vegetable crops grown on 100,000 acres annually by 1,500 contract growers. These crops go into 19 Del Monte human and pet food brands which make up the company’s $3.7 billion in annual sales.

Pesticide use is just part of the sustainability mantra he faces daily from buyers like Wal-Mart, Costco, Sysco and others that, he says, are bombarding food suppliers with repeated questions. The barrage of questions pertains not just to how food is produced, but regards social issues as well.

In baseball, there is one standard score sheet, but in the sustainability world there are as many definitions as there were baseballs used in the recent World Series. It seemed that seldom was a baseball thrown more than twice before it was tossed aside in the series the San Francisco Giants won.

Several years ago an executive with a major California agricultural trade group identified 27 definitions at that time.

Balling has his favorites: “Sustainability meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.”

Then there are the sustainable 3Ps — profit, planet and people.

Balling’s grandfather put it in far simpler and understandable terms: “Don’t eat the seed corn.”

Sustainability demands continue

Regardless of how it is defined, sustainability demands will continue to fall upon food producers.

Balling admitted he was talking to agriculturalists and PCAs, who differ greatly with the sustainability movement and some of the issues like global warming. The most often espoused counter to those who say agriculture lacks sustainability is the fact that third- and fourth-generation U.S. farmers still thrive on the same lands used by their predecessors.

“That is not the (sustainability) environment today,” Balling says.

There are the carbon footprints and things like AB 32, the California global warming mandate. It was passed by the legislature as a cornerstone of outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political legacy. Business interests tried to neuter it on Nov. 2, but failed to stop it.

Balling says AB 32 will drive companies out of California with the goal of turning back the state’s carbon footprint to 1990 levels.

Food suppliers like Del Monte are swamped with questionnaires from buyers asking everything from how crops are grown to what companies do with waste. They even ask what charities companies support. That is about as far from the turn row as you can get, yet it may determine if a wholesaler or retailers buys a farmer’s crop from a processor like Del Monte.

People want know how “green” are companies, said Balling.

Del Monte has hired a sustainability manager to figure that out.

Performance metrics

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.

All pesticides created equal?

Where Balling butts heads with PCAs and commercial pest management is in his risk assessment approach to the use of pesticides. He does not propose banning products, but “not all pesticides are created equal from an environmental perspective.

“If you are spraying Bts verses pyrethroids versus organophosphates (Ops), you are looking at different impacts on the environment.”

There should be metrics associated with that.

Balling acknowledges that PCAs, growers and others directly involved in farming say if the EPA signs off on it, it does not matter what is used to control pests.

“Ops still have value in an IPM system,” Balling said, adding that does not mean there cannot be risk assessment metrics on pesticides used in certain situations.

Balling said there is a much safer pesticide use pattern today with pheromones and other toxic compounds than there was 20 years ago.

He is not the first person to venture into the CAPCA domain singing the sustainability hymn that now pervades retail and wholesale food distribution.

He won’t be the last either, as the issue continues to grow faster than Iowa corn in the summer.

hcline@farmpress.com