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Evaluating Sustainable Certification Programs

March 2014
 
by Cliff Ohmart
 

More regional sustainable farming certification programs exist for winegrapes than for any other crop in the United States. By my count, there are six (see table at right). With so many options, it is worth discussing why there are so many programs and how to evaluate them.

After six years of hype, the Leonardo Academy (a nonprofit group dedicated to advancing sustainable agriculture, LEED building and fire suppression) has finally made available for public comment what they are calling the National Sustainable Ag Standards. This is their attempt to establish a single set of sustainable farming practice standards for all crops throughout the United States.

Sustainable Certification Programs
 

There are several reasons why the U.S. wine industry has been an incubator for so many sustainable wine-growing certification programs. First, wine grape growers are progressive and proactive, and they have formed trade associations in many regions to meet local wine grape-growing challenges, with several focusing on the sustainable growing of wine grapes. Second, many sustainable wine-growing practices are correlated with good quality fruit that makes good wine. Third, terroir is a key factor in wine marketing, and some regional groups decided to connect regional identity with sustainable farming practices. Lastly, every winery is a brand unto itself—each with its own marketing program that can use the sustainable farming story, providing a comprehensive way to promote the region’s sustainable-certification programs.

Transparency is an essential element of a sustainable wine-growing certification program. Without it, potential members cannot determine how the program was developed or evaluate its rigor and credibility. The Internet is a great vehicle for presenting information about a program, but potential members must remain critical when interpreting what they see on a program’s website. It is easy to give a program the appearance of being credible with nice graphics and text, but be skeptical of any program that does not clearly present information about some of the following points.

Process vs. practice

 

 
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