Measure to manage, communicate stewardship efforts
Industry members are faced with a plethora of sustainability audits, not unlike the track food safety accountability has taken. One way to decrease the burden of those audits is to have common measuring systems, or metrics, that allow producers to measure once and use those numbers in a variety of audits and for other purposes, such as telling their sustainability story. That’s why PMA is an active member of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC)—it works to develop tools the industry can use to measure sustainable performance.
Most definitions of sustainability include three components:
- Environmental (planet)
- Social (people)
- Economic (profits)
“SISC regards sustainability as an ongoing commitment to advancing environmental, social and economic values,” according to SISC. “The project does not aim to identify who or what is ‘sustainable,’ but instead to provide common measurement tools to help all participants implement and communicate clearly about sustainability activities.”
Today, companies are asked to demonstrate "sustainability" to their customers and to consumers. SISC notes: “While other certification and supplier education programs have attempted to address these demands, most focus on a niche market, a limited set of crops, and/or a specific link in the supply chain. In contrast, SISC metrics provide the specialty crops industry with a free, comprehensive system for measuring on-farm performance.”
Some see sustainability audits as additional or unavoidable burdens. SISC and standard metrics are an important solution, as they can simplify measuring and reporting. Some wonder why they don’t “get credit” for what they already do. To “get credit” for sustainability efforts, companies must tell their stories, and standard metrics help them tell those stories in ways that are compelling and comparable to others.
When companies view their business protocols through the sustainability prism, it becomes clear that some things they do to save money may also be sustainability efforts (e.g. minimizing crop protection tool use, reducing water or energy use). The same goes for social responsibility. Looking at a business through that prism makes it evident that efforts to attract and keep good workers are also socially responsible programs (paying appropriate wages, good work environments, etc.).
SISC is a multi-stakeholder initiative, engaging producers, buyers, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), that is developing a group of outcomes-focused metrics so companies can benchmark, compare, and communicate their own performance. It is not establishing sustainability standards.
PMA serves on the Coordinating Council and Steering Committee, and has done so since SISC was founded in 2008. PMA and the other supporters see the benefit of having standard metrics to help companies understand and manage their own performance and help them communicate to stakeholders, including customers, about their sustainability outcomes.
“SISC aims to advance both optimal production and strong environmental protection by offering a suite of science-driven metrics empowering producers to measure on-farm practices (e.g. water use, nitrogen use) accurately and consistently. Metric data give consumers, food buyers, and producers a common language for discussing the impact of farming practices – and the meaningful stewardship activities of U.S. farmers,” according to the SISC website.
“By developing, refining and promoting farmer-tested tools that anyone can use to measure performance, SISC is aligned with many other initiatives globally in advocating for measuring specific outcomes rather than endorsing the use of less-accountable 'checklists of practices' that many businesses have been asked to use.”
What’s the difference between a standard and a metric? SISC explains: “[A] ‘standard’ is a required practice or performance score (e.g., a specific irrigation method, a pesticide residue level) whereas a ‘metric’ defines how to measure performance (e.g., acre-feet of water applied, energy use per yield) and notably does not prescribe what to do with the data gathered. Standards are valuable for identifying business partners that can achieve a specified level of performance, but they provide little incentive to improve above the standard and may leave out firms below the standard. SISC has developed metrics, not standards.”
SISC develops specific, measurable performance-based metrics that can measure outcomes (e.g., gallons of water or units of energy conserved). “By focusing on outcomes instead of practices, individual operators are free to innovate and find the practices that work best for them—and demonstrate the benefits of such practices by providing their buyers and customers with tangible data,” SISC notes.
In September 2013, SISC released the initial suite of metrics: Applied Water Use Efficiency, Energy Use, Nitrogen Use, Phosphorus Use, and Soil Organic Matter. Metric overviews
, as well as detailed technical notes, guidelines and a demonstration Metric Calculator
, are available at the SISC website, as is webinar information.
SISC promotes the following benefits from quantitative performance metrics:
• Provide a standardized system for measuring and reporting performance, reducing the potential for duplicative systems;
• Allow individual operators to engage in the sustainability journey starting at (and regardless of) their current level of performance;
• Address the unique needs of the specialty crop industry while demonstrably improving environmental and social impacts;
• Help operators identify opportunities for increasing efficiency and reducing costs;
• Enable verifiable marketing claims (i.e., backed by measurable performance data);
• Reduce the likelihood of future industry regulation by solving problems and demonstrating improved performance to regulators; and
• Free users to innovate best practices by focusing their sights on performance outcomes rather than specific processes.
In addition to developing and promoting the metrics within the industry, SISC is also working with organizations that have standards and protocols to incorporate the SISC metrics as the measurement tool for reporting on specialty crop sustainability.
Being able to document the impact of the industry's stewardship is important so that companies can manage operations better by understanding the business impacts of these activities on the farm and tweaking them to improve performance and efficiency, and so that companies can communicate performance and sustainability progress to buyers and other interested parties, including consumers, demonstrating the company’s commitment to stewardship.
Take a look at the program, the metrics, and the implications to see whether this is something that can benefit you and your company. PMA’s support for SISC derives from PMA’s Issues Leadership efforts, and we will keep you up to date with SISC’s work.