LA QUINTA, CALIF. — Leaders in agricultural sustainability profiled the going-green journey, from “feel good” startup efforts to broad-reaching governmental mandates, at the International Sweetener Colloquium.

Experts highlighted both strengths and challenges, especially when it comes to demonstrating the value of going green.

“People are not always willing to pay a premium for sustainably produced sugar,” said Rebecca Larson, PhD, chief scientist and vice president of governmental affairs at Western Sugar Cooperative.

Larson championed the co-op structure as a supportive and cost-efficient system for farmers wanting to implement best management practices around green initiatives while also guaranteeing their products’ value to consumers.

“There’s no better way to pioneer and adopt sustainability initiatives than as a co-op,” Larson said at the colloquium, co-hosted by the Sweetener Users Association and the International Dairy Foods Association. “There are big risks for independent farmers who are pressured to perform and can very easily reverse out of sustainability programs to save their crop, but a co-op can guarantee green practices by holding farmers accountable and also providing support when unforeseen circumstances require them to step out of the guidelines.”

After 15 years of applying sustainability practices like no-till farming and water conservation, Larson said farmers in the Western Sugar Cooperative have been able to reduce soil erosion by 90%, lower fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and decrease pesticide reliance by 40% while increasing yields more than 35%.

“It’s the grower organizations that are leading sustainability efforts, and it’s important to demonstrate the value of these efforts when trading sugar,” said Dan Galligan, chief executive officer, Australian Canegrowers. “Farmers are adopting best practices to create value by delivering a premium product to the market, and so farmers want to see at least market-based recognition for these programs.”

Galligan said incorporating blockchain strategies along with best management practices, like those outlined by his organization, will not only deliver on sustainability standards but also bring profits back to farmers.

Expanding participation in accredited programs was also a challenge for sustainability programs. Galligan said farms in his sustainability program largely were involved due to governmental mandates, but the majority of farms in Australia were small, family-owned operations that were exempt from this level of regulation.    

Danielle Morley, CEO at Bonsucro, addressed the challenge of upholding sustainability standards across continents.

“Different countries are importing sugar into the United States and they each have their own way of doing things,” Morley said, displaying the value of organizations that standardized sustainability programs on a global scale, especially for exporters. Maintaining integrity across sustainability claims was also important.

“Standards and certifications are increasing in all sectors, but not all standards are equal, so it’s important to look under the bonnet and not just focus on the criteria but also look at the way the standard was developed and how it’s being managed,” Morley said.