The Retailer's Emerging Role In Sustainability

Because retailers act as the gatekeeper between farmers and shoppers, it's to the retailers' advantage to educate themselves, engage their customers and play a proactive role in offering information about sustainability.

Grocers need to learn about the smart practices of today's growers to keep customers informed.

For retailers, the word “sustainability” has a much different meaning from the one it has for consumers. The word may elicit thoughts of packaging and store operations, but when it comes to sustainability in produce, there’s no clear definition. However, one simple way of thinking about sustainability in produce is by going back to where it starts: on the farm.

Although price has historically been the driver for purchasing produce, today's consumers are seeking more information about the products they buy. One particular purchase decision driver on the rise is the desire to purchase fruit and vegetables that are grown sustainably.

Retailers are increasingly getting questions from concerned consumers regarding their produce. Because retailers act as the gatekeeper between farmers and shoppers, it's to the retailers' advantage to educate themselves, engage their customers and play a proactive role in offering information about sustainability.

While sustainability has been a topic of high-level policymakers around the world, it's really the grower who holds the key to sustainable production. For decades, growers have been the cornerstone of sustainability, adopting farming practices that enable them to produce more on the same land their forefathers farmed. As land managers, growers make multiple decisions every day that affect the sustainability of their production, such as maximizing the efficient use of water and other resources. In addition, growers use integrated pest management and other tools to control pests while using fewer pesticides to deliver quality produce. Many growers have also implemented practices such as reduced tillage to improve soil quality.

Further, growers using "protected culture" environments such as greenhouses, glasshouses or screenhouses can increase the quality of their produce and maximize their productivity while also increasing the efficient use of water and land.

For growers, sustainability has to be about maintaining their business and livelihood while protecting the environment. Growers are facing a great challenge ahead: The world population is expected to reach 9.3 billion people by 2050, and the demand for a wider variety of high-quality fruits and vegetables will continue to increase. With the new USDA guidelines for healthier school breakfast and lunch programs, the rising demand for produce will cause an immediate need to harvest more food from each unit of land, water and energy.

Sustainability isn't simply producing more food and managing resources; it's also about improving the lives of growers. The vegetable seed industry is working to develop seeds to help growers produce more food while conserving natural resources, which in the process will create more value, improve growers' bottom lines and allow them to make greater contributions to their communities. All of these things must happen simultaneously for the approach to be truly sustainable.

Moreover, innovation in breeding is allowing the seed industry to deliver seeds that yield a variety of sustainability benefits. Technology is an important part of the solution for sustainable production; whether it's the technology used to develop new seeds, manage water use or reduce crop inputs. Increasing sustainability requires using all of the technical tools in the toolbox. Now is the perfect time to convey this message to consumers.

Consuelo Madere is VP of global vegetables and Asia commercial for St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. She can be reached at [email protected].

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