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Online tool seeks to evaluate impact of food production systems

By Hank Schultz , 26-Oct-2012

A program being developed at Washington State University has received a $240,000 grant from the Clif Bar Family Foundation to develop science-based tools to evaluate the sustainability of various food production systems.

The program, called “Measure to Manage: Food and Farm Diagnostics for Sustainability and Health,” or M2M,  will use the three-year grant to develop a series of tools to develop new, and refine existing, science-based tools to quantify and compare the nutritional quality of food, agricultural and food production safety parameters, and agriculture’s environmental impact.

“It will be a series of interconnected tools that will make it possible to do a series of calculations to apply a set of performance metrics to a different food production systems, and eventually even manufacturing processes,” Chuck Benbrook, PhD, the program’s director, told FoodNavigator-USA.

Common basis for comparison

M2M’s goal will be to try to give a common basis for evaluating the many standards and certification programs that are in place or in the offing on the state and national level and from several international organizations. M2M will address what makes one farming system more or less sustainable than another and how farmers, food companies and third-party certifiers can quantify improvements in food nutritional quality and safety.

“The purpose of the tool is not to provide a platform to showcase the attributes of any one farming system, but to provide a science-based, evidence-driving comparison of a number of attributes in different food products based on how they were grown, were they were grown and how they were handled,” Benbrook said.

EPA analogy

Benbrook used the analogy of the situation during the gas crisis years of the 1970s. At the outset there was no accepted standard to gauge the fuel economy performance of different cars.  Consumers who wanted to purchase a car based on this attribute had no trustworthy basis for comparison until the Environmental Protection Agency set up a program to evaluate cars’ miles-per-gallon ratings based on comparable test conditions.

“The goal of my program is to essentially do the same thing that can be applied to food produced by different companies using different technologies,” Benbrook said.

“Let’s face it, the global food market is becoming increasingly competitive, more and more consumers are making choices based on perceived attributes on food, either attributes affecting their own health or aspects of food and farming systems that affect the environment.”

 “Agriculture has a huge impact on the health of people and the planet. Now more than ever, we need to back the rigorous, scientific study of organic, sustainable agriculture and its many benefits,” said Kit Crawford, president of Clif Bar Family Foundation.

Catalyst for growth of measurement tools

“M2M will serve as a catalyst for enhancing the sophistication of measurement methods within multidisciplinary and multi-institutional teams conducting research on a wide variety of agricultural and food systems,” said Chad Kruger, director of WSU's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, the institutional home of M2M.

The grant from the Clif Bar Family Foundation will accelerate M2M’s development and provide public access to program results and analytical tools via the M2M website .

In addition to the support from Clif, the program has received startup capital and support from a number of other well-known natural products companies, United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) and the UNFI Foundation, Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, Whole Foods and Stonyfield, Inc. Additionally, a $25,000 grant from Annie’s Inc. will support work to calculate the embedded environmental and food safety attributes from organic ingredients.

“It’s an ambitions goal and no one program is going to cover the waterfront in this area, but I hope to make a start at it,” Benbrook said.

 

 

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