Organics have made a tremendous impact on the way people eat, shop, farm and market food. As the broader public has gained a greater understanding of the benefits of organics, farmers have recognized a profit opportunity, and retailers have found a new way to satisfy the exacting demands of consumers.
Yet as pronounced as the impact of organics is at this moment in time, it would be a mistake to think it has reached its limit.
I recently released a whitepaper (download link below) that envisions a much broader vision for organics as a change agent toward core solutions for sustainability in global food chains. If that sounds like an ambitious vision, that’s because it is. While there’s work to be done to define the right measures and indicators, the good news is that the process is already underway, and the potential benefits are almost unfathomable.
Imagine a farming system that’s wholly accountable and transparent in its balancing of ecology, economy, society and culture. Consider the implications for long-term prosperity.
Envision production and consumption costs fully accounted for, including natural capital costs, human capital costs, global food loss and waste.
Think about the widespread benefits if we could significantly reduce GHG emissions, improve soil health and fertility, protect biodiversity and water and reduce mineral depletion.
Consider the potential if we could improve livelihoods and human development, while improving global health through better dietary choices, even as we engage in more sustainable use of natural resources.
As large as this challenge is, it’s even more necessary. It offers the hope of a healthier, more prosperous, safer and cleaner world. And there is every reason to think the evolution of current organic systems offers the best path to get there.
Organic systems already come closer than any other to measuring and mastering many of these imperatives. However, until now, the concern of organics has been primarily about ecosystem health. That’s obviously a worthy point of focus, but some in the field are starting to recognize it’s only the start of what organics can do to tackle the challenges facing the planet and society.
To move toward a more ambitious goal, however, several issues must be addressed including:
Agreeing on key performance indicators that really matter. This is crucial because there are many different certification schemes used in organics – by food producers, manufacturers and supply chain operators. A common set of outcome-based key performance indicators (KPIs) would help the industry define how to achieve sustainability that leads to healthy people, environmental protection and good livelihoods.
Implement practical ways to measure and report the indicators. It’s about what to measure, but it’s also about how to measure. Some of the better work being done in this area includes the TEEBAgriFood Evaluation Framework and the Sustainable Food Trust’s harmonized framework of categories and metrics. A central idea being forwarded is to develop a common set of sustainability metrics that can be applied across farming systems internationally.
Show how better practices translate to both short- and long-term economic advantages. Outcomes are the key here. The fundamental question of any sustainability scheme is whether it really does any good. If we can show, as one small example, that hitting these measures increases the availability of good soil while improving water retention, farmers will easily be able to identify the cost savings and the impact on their bottom lines.
If evolving organic systems come up with accurate and easy-to-use measuring and monitoring tools to reflect these goals, there is every reason to think they will be widely embraced.
And why shouldn’t organics lead the way? Who else has already come as far in respect to these goals? Who else has thought as much about how to measure and achieve them? Who else has mastered the best practices that are already strengthening and protecting ecosystems?
It’s when you realize the true potential of what you’re doing that you’re both daunted and inspired. This should be that moment for organics. We’ve made a massive impact already. How powerful is it to realize we’re probably just getting started?
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