It appears that retail giant Walmart is ready to take another step on its sustainability journey. Sources within the food industry are reporting that Walmart is planning to begin collecting data from its fruit and vegetable vendors in order to assess the sustainability of their operations.
This is a continuation of Wamart’s initiative rolled out last fall in which they pledged to support farmers and their communities by selling $1 billion worth of food from one million small and medium farmers who will be trained in sustainability practices. This move will effectively double the amount of locally grown food they sell in the US, while increasing revenue to smaller farmers by 10-15%.
They also pledged to produce more food with fewer resources and less waste by investing over $1 billion in their food supply chain over the next five years and reducing food waste in their stores.
Furthermore they pledged to seek more sustainable sources for foods such as palm oil for all of their private branded products and beef from sources that do not contribute to rainforest deforestation.
The metrics announcement stems from the 2011 Sustainable Food Lab Leadership Summit which met in late June. Wal-Mart is working with and seeking input from the Sustainability Consortium which is jointly administered by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University. A substantial portion of the metrics they will use were developed by the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC), which was also mentioned as part of last fall’s announcement when the company pledged to “accelerate the agricultural focus of the Sustainability Index, beginning with a Sustainable Produce Assessment for top producers in its Global Food Sourcing network in 2011.”
SISC is a multi-stakeholder initiative to develop a system for measuring sustainability performance throughout the specialty crop supply chain which includes fruits, vegetables, nuts and horticulture. In addition to retail food buyers such as Walmart and Wegmans, other stakeholders include growers and their representative associations, large food producers such as Heinz and Del Monte, packers, shippers, distributors, government agencies, academics and NGO’s including Defenders of Wildlife and the World Wildlife Fund. More than 400 representatives of these groups have joined the effort since its inception.
SISC’s core operating principles include:
- Avoiding duplication of efforts
- Realizing that we will achieve more through a collaborative effort that includes all supply chain stakeholders
- Creating metrics that are performance-based, non-prescriptive, allowing individual operators to innovate
- Maintaining an open and transparent process
Though a large number of metrics have been developed addressing such items as resource utilization, biodiversity, pest management and waste, the current pilot has been boiled down to the following five for simplicity’s sake:
- Water use efficiency by acre and unit of production
- Simple irrigation efficiency using crop evapotranspiration
- Soil organic matter as compared with the soil’s potential
- Nitrogen and phosphorus use efficiency by acre and unit of production
- Energy use by acre and unit of production
The index draws strength from its collaborative approach in which all stakeholders are given a chance to share their concerns and perspectives. Some entities are far larger, but the group tries to give everyone an equal voice.
I asked Jessica Siegal, Program Director of the Stewardship Index, if there have been metrics developed concerning the use of GMO crops. She said they have not as yet and therefore have no institutional position on the issue at this point in time. We can agree that there are many other sustainability issues requiring attention. But when the time comes to address GMOs, there will be some major differences of opinion between some members of the metrics review committee such as Monsanto and Bayer Crop Sciences and others, such as some of the environmental groups on the team.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.