Walmart set to define "sustainability"

As the debate over how the ag industry defines "sustainability" grew to a fevered pitch in 2010, one company may become the authority in creating the largest impact in "sustainability" rules. That company looks to be Walmart.

In mid-October, Walmart released its own global sustainable agriculture goals. Unlike other agriculture industry organizations or companies, Walmart by far has the greater reach than any other company in the world and, therefore, has the biggest chance of making the largest impact on global agricultural practices.

Walmart has divided its goals into three categories:

  • Support farmers and their communities.
  • Produce more food with fewer resources and less waste.
  • Sustainably source key agriculture products.

Earlier this year, Walmart also announced its plans to develop a Sustainable Product Index that will establish a single source of data for evaluating the sustainability of products. The index will translate product information into a simple rating for consumers about the sustainability of products.

Exactly how these new standards are going to be set for these ambitious new initiatives has not been revealed by Walmart. However, it has announced that its environmental standards are being developed by the Sustainability Consortium, which includes several agribusiness companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Tyson Foods and Stonyfield Farm. The Sustainability Consortium is working through the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University to develop standards for a range of consumer products, including food.

Under its banner of producing more food with fewer resources, its goal is 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.

In the U.S., Walmart's Heritage Agriculture program is planned to help the company double the sale of locally grown food. "Three of Walmart's largest Heritage Agriculture programs are in the I-95 corridor along the East Coast, the Delta region in the South and the Mid-America region of the Midwest," according to the company.

Unlike the government, Walmart's move could do more to change the face of production agriculture than any previous regulations. But what is concerning is the decision-making process determining what the new guidelines are going to be. Walmart may have the capability of truly changing the face of sustainable agriculture in a more definitive way that will be more visible to consumers. Agriculture, and specifically ag retailers and crop consultants, need to be prepared to shift to more stringent environmental and other "sustainable" processes in order to help clients compete globally within the U.S. for the consumer dollar.

It appears that whether sustainability is legislated by the U.S. government or pushed through by large retail giants like Walmart, both may be setting policy that no one in ag can afford to ignore if they want to stay in business.

Changes will be coming to production ag. Sustainability is not a fad that is going to go away any time soon, especially with the 800-pound gorilla of Walmart entering the mix. As a result, agriculture cannot afford to stick its head in the sand regardless of whether it agrees with the new policies or not. The choice may be taken away from agriculture.