ADDING some clarity to the concept of sustainable farming, the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) unveiled the first version of a new farmer self-assessment "checklist" that is now being tested and implemented by eight of the world's leading food and beverage companies.
Designed to reduce duplication of farm sustainability assessments and to help more farms get on the path to sustainable agriculture, the checklist is an on-farm reference tool that considers production, environmental, economic and social sustainability factors as part of an overall assessment.
SAI is an international consortium of 50 food and beverage companies committed to advancing the concept of sustainable agriculture as "a productive, competitive and efficient way to produce agricultural products while at the same time protecting the natural environment and socioeconomic conditions of local communities."
Its products and services include guidelines, tools and training materials for implementing sustainable agriculture at the farm level and sustainable sourcing throughout the supply chain.
Following closely on the release of the world's first "Practitioner's Guide" for sustainable sourcing of agricultural raw materials, SAI unveiled its farm-level checklist last month at the International Food & Agribusiness Management Assn. World Forum in Atlanta, Ga.
SAI president Ernesto Brovelli, director of Coca-Cola's sustainable sourcing program, said the checklist provides clarity for producers who might otherwise see sustainable agriculture as a buzzword without much in the way of a definition.
SAI pointed out that many food and beverage companies already have some code or standards in place for farmers to comply with when they supply resources or ingredients, but because farms likely supply multiple manufacturers, the certification process for farmers can be time consuming and complex.
"Many codes are perceived as insufficiently taking into account the perspective of the farmer and relate only to specific crops," SAI explained in a guidance document. "The SAI platform farmer self-assessment checklist aims to provide a single and simple solution to farmers, which enables them to comply with the common requirements from food and drink companies."
The SAI checklist is designed to provide a common point of reference for food and beverage companies, potentially reducing the efforts of companies in their sustainability benchmarking and gap analysis.
In the form of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, the checklist takes growers through a series of five "chapters," asking questions about various farming practices that influence sustainability. The chapters include general information, sustainable farming systems, environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability.
In total, the checklist asks 115 questions, 105 of which are scored as part of the evaluation process. Questions are broken out as "basic" or "advanced," depending on the level of commitment or expertise necessary to implement the practice in question.
The basic checkpoints represent what SAI member companies view as the minimal requirements for sustainable farming. SAI expects that, with time, all farms should be able to score 100% on the basic checkpoints.
Advanced checklists, on the other hand, are categorized as such if they are not commonly understood as basic — for example, if the practice requires large investments or specialized knowledge, if it is partly beyond the sphere of influence of the farm or if it is not achievable for smallholder farmers in lower-income countries. In many cases, more elaborate recordkeeping is required as well.
The advanced checkpoints are included to promote a more detailed awareness of the aspects SAI members think comprise sustainable farming and aim to motivate improvement on those aspects.
In this early iteration, the SAI checklist is a product of two working groups on arable and vegetable crops and fruits and in consultation with 20 firms and organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Cargill and the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization. Eight of SAI's 50 member companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestle, Mondelez and Unilever, have committed to testing the checklist in their supply chains during the pilot phase of the project.