From VeriFlora To Sustainable Agriculture

Linda Brown, executive vice president of Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), answers more questions we have about the effort to establish national standards for sustainable agriculture.

SCS developed the Draft National Sustainable Agriculture Standard for Trial Use, which will apply to food, fiber, floral and energy crops. SCS also created VeriFlora, a certification program for the floriculture industry that is currently being implemented with growers on a volunteer basis. Once approved, the national standards will be voluntary, not regulatory. But growers need to be informed regardless, because many large customers have taken an interest in sustainable programs.

How did the initiative to develop sustainable standards for floriculture under VeriFlora begin?

BROWN: It began in 2002 with Organic Bouquet (an online floral retailer based in San Francisco). A stakeholder group of 10 organizations representing handlers, distributors, growers and retailers approached us. They were looking for an evaluation for sustainability to market green labels in the cut flower sector and later potted plants.   

We conducted a gap analysis after looking at a variety of green labels and programs. We identified what the standards were accomplishing and what they weren’t. They tended to address similar issues, but in a lot of areas, more depth was needed. And whole areas were not addressed related to product packaging and transport. This is not to dismiss the other work, but put it together and strengthen areas that need to be more comprehensive. It also became clear that we needed a North American-focused program. (MPS is from Holland and Florverde is from Colombia.)

VeriFlora started on a pilot basis. The group continued to stay enngaged, gave us feedback and helped ground truth in it. In June 2005, VeriFlora debuted publicly at World Environment Day in San Francisco. 

What is SCS’s background in sustainable certifications?

BROWN: Sustainability is a backdrop for what we’ve been working in for many years. One of our founding board members is involved in forest stewardship, which took off earlier than expected in 1994, when rainforest issues captured consumer attention. In 1991, wood producers were promoting well-managed forests.

In agriculture, we became accredited to certify USDA organic in 1984 and have been certifying pesticide residue-free foods since 1985. It has been a great tool for growers to minimize pesticide usage. We have a lot of background in food safety and agricultural products.

We also work with the Marine Stewardship Council, establishing and certifying standards for the harvesting of wild fish and aquaculture.

Since 1991, our methodology has been a lifecycle assessment, a cradle-to-grave approach in industrial processes. Lifecycle teaches you you can’t just look at what is obvious but also upstream and downstream, from the sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing processes then transportation and disposal. We’re not looking at selected areas of impact but the full range. 

Why focus on organic production when there are other certification programs for organic?

BROWN: It’s hard to create a sustainability claim that doesn’t address organic. We need to address it on some level—a standard to address both sustainable and organic versus keeping them separate or making organic certification be in competition with the standard. We are putting all the components of sustainability under one umbrella or framework. The eight elements of sustainability are:

  • Sustainable crop production
  • Resource conservation and energy efficiency
  • Ecosystem protection
  • Integrated waste management
  • Fair labor practices
  • Community benefits
  • Product quality
  • Product safety 

It’s unusual for an initiative to begin in the cut flower industry and then extend to larger segments of agriculture. How did that happen here?

BROWN: Our growers in VeriFlora are just a sample with this interest. Instead of just creating VeriFlora and calling it a day, we decided to work on creating a national standard through the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) process and national stakeholder dialog. We’ve participated in other ANSI and ISO processes. ISO is the international version. We’re on a parallel track with the energy crop producers. We’re also working in the green building sector. This, however, is a big challenge because sustainable agriculture has so many stakeholders. There is a lot of commonality, so this is a great place to start. We redrafted VeriFlora’s core requirements to be applied to any crop. Then sector-specific annexes will cover each segement, like cut flowers and potted and nursery crops, so their considerations are not overlooked.

One of the big concerns is floriculture crop producers will have to grow to the same standards as fruit and vegetable growers, even though the crops are not edible.

BROWN: The requirements in the sector-specific annex will override the general core requirements. The growers will meet the standards specified in their annex.

The goal is to put growers on a pathway to sustainability. No one’s perfect. It’s an incremental pathway to improvement. You, the grower, lay out the plan for improvement. We’re not prescriptive to that degree. There are a lot of factors in each operation. It’s a commitment toward sustainable practices, the good we can do, and gives guidance. We can’t focus on the pot and ignore the plant. We have to do all of these things. It’s a road map. We’re giving the participant a way forward.

Related to chemicals, it’s about reducing risk. Organic is recognized as the best level of practice. We’re encouraging growers to move toward that as proven practical and phasing out the use of products that are toxic to the environment and workers. The certification does not require the grower to grow organically, but phase in and prioritize biological and mechanical controls. If you sacrifice other aspects of sustainability, like production, because you can’t control a certain pest, the standard doesn’t force you. It requires you to look at options and provide justifications over time.

We have a set of tables for cut flower controls that are amended every year. As new chemicals arise, we assess relative risks and develop a phase-out schedule of the more harmful products.

What’s next for VeriFlora?

BROWN: We’re establishing the VeriFlora Sustainability Council, an independent not-for-profit trade association dedicated to educating the industry, retailers and consumers on issues of sustainability. Annie Gardiner is the executive director.

For more information, visit www.veriflora.org.

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