IFPA tapped into a federal program to advance produce industry sustainability efforts.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
The Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities has the potential to advance produce industry sustainability efforts and provide the puzzle pieces that can make purchasing fruits and vegetables even more attractive to shoppers by more thoroughly addressing environmental concerns.
At a time when transparency is a major dynamic driving perishable food operations, the United States Department of Agriculture-funded Climate-Smart Commodities program is throwing it into a new gear. The program will create a databank of various agricultural practices meant to drive information into the hands of retailers and their customers.
For the produce industry, the specialty crop component of the program is critical, not only to give growers a better sense of what environmental practices might work best for them, but how those practices affect environmental concerns, such as emissions, as well as yields, costs and profits.
Last September, the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), Newark, DE, received a $15 million grant through the Climate-Safe Commodities program. The IFPA-submitted pilot program was supported by several major partners, among them the University of Florida, CropTrak, Frehner-Jens Consulting, Clark McDowall Brand Architecture Company, Alcorn State University, Measure to Improve, LLC, Mississippi Small Farm and Agribusiness Center at Alcorn State, Alamo Farms, Bayer, Bland Farms, Bolthouse Farms, Calavo, Campbell Soup Company, Del-Monte, Driscoll’s, Limoneira, Monterey Pacific, Noble Produce Holdings, and Sun Pacific.
IFPA, in turn, has tentatively accepted project proposals from several enterprises. These individual pilot programs in the IFPA’s A Vibrant Future program will operate over four years, with a requirement for a final report in the fifth.
GRABBING THE GRANT
When the USDA came out with the program, IFPA decided the produce industry needed to jump into a next-generation approach to growing practices, one that will eventually influence the development of the carbon market and green financing. IFPA also wanted to make sure that the full range of produce merits were factored into how USDA looks at Climate-Smart Commodities.
“We wanted to make sure we were part of the conversation, focusing more on nutrition and other benefits,” says IFPA Chief Science Officer Dr. Max Teplitski. “We wanted to make sure the fresh produce industry, and our members, have the tools to grow fresh produce as sustainably as possible. This is not to say they’re not doing a good job already, but there are some practices that will require an investment, testing, and that’s why we wanted to apply for this grant.”
The sustainability marketplace is developing, another key reason IFPA sought the grant.
“In addition to piloting practices, we wanted to make sure we have a way to track the environmental services associated with sustainable production,” he says. “Right now, because our growers can’t really assign a value to the sustainable practices they put into place, they may lose the opportunity to capitalize on green financing, or carbon credits. So, the secondary goal of this grant is to make sure we give the industry the tools to account for the environmental benefits of the practices they develop.”
Nikki Cossio, chief executive and founder of Measure to Improve, Salinas, CA, says the climate-smart practices championed in the initiatives aren’t new concepts to the produce industry, but “we haven’t been measuring it, we haven’t been tracking it. We just did it because it was the right thing to do,” she says.
Teplitski agrees IFPA saw lots of environmentally friendly practices underway, but growers and others did not detail, or could not measure, the actual environmental impact of a given practice. As such, it’s important for the produce industry to make its case and get recognition for the efforts it has made. Otherwise, produce growers may find themselves sidelined as developments accelerate.
“Being in this conversation early is going to be important,” says Teplitski. “That’s one of the major goals of our involvement.”
“IFPA prides itself on being an impactful champion of the industry,” says Teplitski. “We track the conversations to see where the conversations are going, and we see consumers are talking about sustainability as one of their priorities.”
“We want to make sure our members have access to the best data — and sometimes the best data is from when we roll up our sleeves and get it done,” he added. “We feel IFPA is in a unique position to help the industry because we’re at arms-length from growers, retailers and business service providers, so we feel we can analyze and moderate this conversation in a way that will benefit the entire discourse as a trusted party.”
IFPA’s program, A Vibrant Future, is not the only climate-smart grant supporting sustainable practices in specialty crops programs. Teplitski says there are a dozen or so other grant proposals that involve specialty crops in one way or another.
With documentation in hand at the program’s end, Vibrant Futures participants will be able to demonstrate why they should get carbon credits and/or green financing.
IFPA also plans promotional packages that growers in the Climate-Smart Commodities program can use in compelling presentations of their sustainability improvements and innovations.
“We are going to give growers the tools to market their products,” says Teplitski. “One of the requirements of the program is to give growers an opportunity to market their climate-smart commodities. As part of our project, we will give growers off-the-shelf tools to market their products as climate-smart. The growers can then customize them. We will give them tools to tell their stories.”
The idea is to work through the retail end of the supply chain to consumers, letting them know, for instance, that a certain climate-smart growing method cut greenhouse gas emissions and provides value. At that point, consumers would have solid information to make a purchase decision.
Agriculture has been called out as a major contributor to greenhouse gases, although produce isn’t top of the scale. At the same time, agriculture also can be a substantial contributor to sustainability efforts, says Cossio of Measure to Improve. However, to get credit for the effort made, the agricultural industry needs to have evidence its efforts are making a substantive impact.
In September of 2022, when IFPA announced its proposal had been approved, the association said it would “incentivize growers of specialty crops to adopt climate-smart production in order to establish a consumer-driven market for fruits and vegetables grown using climate-smart practices.”
According to the USDA, the primary states listed on the proposal were Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.
Given the size and scope of the Climate-Smart Commodities (CSC) program, the path to the actual Vibrant Future program launch has been lengthy. Even as mid-August approached, final signatures on IFPA’s already-accepted grant proposals are waiting, but Teplitski expects the final official acceptance of the IFPA proposal to arrive shortly.
The wait for the final signatures to hit the grant contract and set the designated funds flowing, however, has concerned some companies.
“I am the contact person for the CSC program, and am still waiting for information on getting started,” says Dr. Doug Beck of Monterey Pacific, Soledad, CA. “We were originally included in the program with the aim to conduct field trials on compost and biochar amendments. The grant was awarded to our group, but from what I have heard, the program and money allocations are still in limbo.”
RECRUITMENT STILL UNDERWAY
IFPA expects to accept a second round of pilot projects at a future date.
“If you are a grower and you are interested in the project, here are the questions to ask: Am I already interested in trialing climate-smart practices? If the only thing that’s preventing me is a little bit of support, a little offset of direct costs, and then technical support, then this project is really for you,” says Teplitski.
IFPA expects growers in the Climate-Smart Commodities program to remain involved for the duration of the program to fully test the practices and provide data on factors such as yield.
As a shorthand, given the requirements and regulations governing how the Climate-Smart Commodities programs operate, IFPA has distinguished them one from another as “easy,” “less complicated” and “really complicated.”
The easy include commodities such as tree crops that are in the ground for a long time and don’t require tilling. The less complicated ones are perennials such as cranberries, which share some growing characteristics with tree crops under program parameters. The complicated crops are the ones that are planted every year — that’s because when it comes to annuals, the USDA requires different standards when it comes to, for example, no till, cover crops and water management.
The Vibrant Futures program includes support, such as crop advisors and testing, and that’s one reason to limit the program to certain states. Otherwise, trying to work with too broadly distributed growers might be cost-prohibitive. Another factor that suggests the program should limit its geographic outreach is because practices that suit one region aren’t going to be effective in others, and so the scope of the data might become so broad as to prove less definitive in application.
“Cover cropping makes a lot of sense in the Southeast,” says Teplinksi. “It makes much less sense in the desert.”
The Vibrant Future program doesn’t include expansion to additional states, but Teplitski says that other specialty crop Climate-Smart Commodities grant recipients, such as Elevated Foods, cover geographies the IFPA-led effort doesn’t. The $20 million proposal from Newport Beach, CA-based Elevated Foods, encompasses Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and the Navajo Nation.
IFPA can help growers find specialty crop Climate-Smart Commodities programs in states where Vibrant Futures isn’t planning to operate.
NEED SCIENCE-BASED DIRECTION
Growers can benefit from the Climate-Smart Commodities program from a business perspective. Using data gathered in the initiative, they can evaluate sustainability measures and see how they can minimize input and operational costs to maximize their return on investment.
The Climate-Smart Commodities effort could establish an almost aggressive form of transparency, not just letting consumers see that the produce they are purchasing is safe and responsibly produced, but also putting elements in place to convince them the industry is a positive force on sustainability’s development and expansion.
To ensure sustainable practices benefit the agriculture industry, and others along the road to the consumer requires “making sure we’re aligned in how we gather data and how we report it out, so we’re comparing apples to apples,” says Cossio, of Measure to Improve. “Even though we’ve got different soil types, different commodities, we’ve got to be able to measure in the same way, so nobody has an advantage over the other. That’s really important.”
The IFPA is looking at practices that can help produce growers adapt to climate change.
“The USDA acknowledges that climate change poses a huge threat to this industry,” says Cossio. “No one other industry is going to be more affected by these extreme weather events, and we’ve seen evidence of that in shifts in our growing seasons. We have longer growing seasons, shorter growing seasons. We’ve got threats to our water resources. So, it’s important we drive why the USDA is investing so much money into this.”
To prepare for continued climate change, two factors become critical, says Cossio: adaptation to climate, and crop resiliency.
“Let’s meet on a regular basis to really move this along because there is a sense of urgency to figure this stuff out,” she says. “It costs time, money, resources, and we can’t tiptoe around it. We just need to roll our sleeves up and work together as an industry.”
RETAILERS AND CONSUMERS
The program is a holistic approach, says Cossio. “It’s about building ecosystems, supporting farmer livelihoods and presenting a way to move these practices beyond the five years.”
In addition to that, she says the industry needs to define terms and build demand in the marketplace.
“We’ve got to educate all of us. When we’re talking to growers, what do we mean by regenerative, green finance, or smart practices? When we talk to consumers who are trying to figure out what product they want to purchase, they will be able to have that information to make informed decisions,” Cossio explains. “So, it’s about creating market demand and educating the supply chain, including consumers, about what this means going forward.”
To accomplish such goals requires cooperation.
A successful program will also identify what works, what doesn’t work, what are the challenges, what are the successes, Cossio adds, “so we can fast track our efforts in the areas that make sense and reduce duplicative efforts where it doesn’t make sense. This is about sharing best practices.”
The IFPA pilot initiatives will provide data that can be used to weigh decisions all the way through the supply chain.
“There are a lot of requests for information coming at this industry from all different directions, and it’s a little overwhelming to respond to all these different requests and, at the same time, be able to grow our food,” says Cossio.
“This industry is being looked at as a solutions provider. The consistent challenge I’m hearing: Everybody within the supply chain needs to be part of the solution. It just can’t rest on the shoulders of the growers and shippers to find the solution. We all have to be willing to participate and understand the implications of implementing these practices.”
Dr. Sabine Grunwald at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, is developing the way data collected in the program will be organized and prepared, so it can be used by growers to evaluate and apply the lessons learned. However, the goal also is to give retailers information they can provide to customers.
Grunwald says newer technologies, tools and models will help assess how particular projects address factors such as carbon mitigation, as well as sequestration, in given circumstances.
Developing management models and tools is important because Climate-Smart Commodities projects will cover different regions, climates and soil types, says Grunwald. Currently, there isn’t a comprehensive way to compare and contrast sustainable growing practices across geographies and growing conditions. What works in one place may not be effective in another, even if distances between projects aren’t vast. Under those circumstances, the ability to systemize data so observers can understand the conditions and how they influence results is crucial.
Communicating the results into something meaningful from a consumer’s point of view will be critical.
“Something that has been missing is, in essence, the transparency and knowing what practices work best, then communicating them to consumers with labels or bar codes or something that can give consumers the ability to make the final decision,” she says.
The IFPA’s initial proposal included development of a consumer-focused “climate-smart seal” to be affixed to fruits and vegetables.
The role of AI may also be critical, and help to refine the volume of data to generate models that have compatible features, but also distinguish between cases to the degree that’s important.
In the end, Grunwald says, the predictive tools envisioned as part of the Climate-Smart Commodities program can offer specialty crops growers a way to look ahead and prepare for a changing environment on a local, regional and even national scale.
Another intention of the Climate-Smart Commodities program is the advancement of growing technologies or the design of new ones. As the program generates data and new ways to look at it, the Climate-Smart Commodities initiative will provide tools that make transparency regarding sustainable agriculture clearer than it is today.
The anticipated marketing component of the program should create even more interest in sustainable growing, says Grunwald. In that way, consumers can factor sustainability into what they buy, based on their own views and traditional factors such as price and freshness.
The detailed and accurate data provided by the Climate-Smart Commodities program also will give the produce industry — from field to truck to wholesaler to retailer — information it can use to approach the carbon market as it emerges, along with green financing. It could develop traceable and tradeable “climate-smart benefits bundles (CSBB)” that growers can use in financial transactions.
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USDA Gives Elevated Foods $20 Million
Elevated Foods, Newport Beach, CA, received a Climate-Smart Commodities award of $20 million (approximate funding ceiling) to expand markets in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and South Carolina, as well as the Navajo Nation, for climate-smart fresh fruits and vegetables.
According to Elevated Foods, the growers participating in its project will document their practices and related acreage, use third-third party calculators to determine greenhouse gas emissions and reductions, and develop marketing plans that will put climate-smart messaging in front of consumers.
Elevated plans to leverage its marketing and branding expertise to pilot a climate-smart branding program for participating producers.
According to Elevated Foods, the growers participating in its Climate-Smart Commodities program will document their practices and related acreage in CropTrak to help farmers increase the efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of their supply chain.
Then, third-party calculators integrated into the USDA COMET-Farm platform will evaluate the data and calculate greenhouse gas emissions, as well as greenhouse gas emission reductions.
In addition, a quarter of the funds received will go to producer incentives that will support small and historically underserved fruit and vegetable producers.
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Climate-Smart Commodity Program Funding
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is releasing funding for the Climate-Smart Commodity program as two pools.
In the first round, which was for projects between $5 million and $100 million, USDA received project proposals that covered programs totaling $18 billion, and chose to spend $2.8 billion on proposals it accepted after a review process was completed.
The second funding pool, for projects between $250,000 up to $5 million, received $2 billion in proposals, with USDA funding $325 million.