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ON A ROLL -- Unilever’s processing plant in Stockton, California, peels, chops, pulps, and condenses half a million tons of tomatoes a year.
Bigger than local. Bigger than organic. Agribusiness prepares to define sustainability for American food.

I walked along the mud-caked fringe of farmland and tried in vain to make out the profiles of a quarter of a million baby tomato plants. It was hard to believe that in just a few months this perfect rectangle of endless muck would burst into three million pounds of ripe red fruit, and even stranger to think that this vast monoculture just might be leading the world toward agricultural sustainability -- particularly considering that not one of the plants before me was organic, heirloom, or pesticide free.

"When I see my fields, I see a canvas," said Frank Muller, the sunburned avatar of agri-technology who sold 60,000 tons of last year's tomato harvest to transnational food giant Unilever, which subsequently processed the lot into bottles of Cheesy, Chunky, and Robusto-style Ragú spaghetti sauce.

Muller and his two brothers farm 219 mammoth tracts of land in the Sacramento Valley. They are the sons of Swiss immigrants who settled in California less than half a century ago, and while the brothers do cultivate a few organic fruits and vegetables here and there, when it comes to the health and well-being of their cash crop, the Mullers rely on conventional farming methods.

Recent estimates blame agriculture for as much as 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and nitrogen fertilizers account for more miasma than all those methane-belching cows and sheep combined. But even as the power of the American food movement waxes, organic farms still make up less than 1 percent of this country's cropland. The unignorable presence of that other 99 percent has forced many environmentalists to a singularly pragmatic conclusion: If there is going to be a significant attempt to slash the use of water, fossil fuels, fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides -- the resource-sucking carbon and chemical footprint that has come to define the modern agro-industrial complex -- the bulk of that effort will have to emerge from the operations of large-scale, conventional farms. The assault on business as usual will come from the everyday operations of Frank Muller's farm.

NRDC: Working On The Farm Q&A with Jonathan Kaplan

"If you're not organic, it doesn't mean you're bad," Muller says. Still, the notion of the world's megafarms leading the way to global sustainability may chill the hearts of Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and Alice Waters, not to mention their legions of followers. The very idea opposes the philosophy and politics of the Slow Food movement, the grass-fed movement, the organic movement, and the local food movement.

But in the past few years, some of the world's mightiest and most profitable tomato syndicates -- including Del Monte, Heinz, and Unilever -- have allied themselves with a small, relatively unknown, and extraordinarily ambitious consortium called the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. In 2008 the Stewardship Index began the business of gathering together many of those who share a stake in industrial agriculture, be they farmers, transnational packagers and retailers, or environmentalists. The goal is to get them to agree on what, exactly, one ought to measure to understand and gauge the environmental impact of the seed-to-shelf life cycle of any produce-based product, from frozen french fries to canned almonds to bottled pasta sauce. Working committees include representatives from Bayer CropScience, General Mills, PepsiCo, and Walmart; trade groups such as the Western Growers Association and the National Potato Council; and nongovernmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Organic Center, and the World Wildlife Fund. And then there are the academics -- from Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, and the University of Arkansas' Sam M. Walton College of Business -- all of whom have taken an interest in how sustainability can permeate megafarm and megastore alike.

The Stewardship Index calls its proposed yardsticks "sustainability metrics," and the hope is that once everyone in the industry can quantify environmental sustainability, they will be able to compare and contrast their levels with those of their industry peers and eliminate their own excesses. The logic is fairly straightforward: sustainability aligns with efficiency, and the elimination of any size, shape, or form of wasted resource will save the world's largest companies untold dollars, euros, and yuan. Thus will stewardship of the earth come to align with the profit motive, and sustainability metrics will become the lingua franca of staunch capitalist, radical environmentalist, and everyone in between. At least that's the idea.

Here on the Mullers' fields in Yolo County, the translation of agricultural custom into sustainability metric had already begun. I had come to California to see tomatoes and found a revolution in measurement, so I followed the fruit from family farm to the world's largest retailer in order to catch a glimpse of the future of food.


This article was made possible by the Jonathan and Maxine Marshall Fund for Environmental Journalism.

image of FredKaufman
The author of A Short History of the American Stomach, which won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award, Frederick Kaufman is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and has written for New York Magazine, GQ, and the New Yorker. He teaches journalism at ... READ MORE >
Great article, Frederick. Agribusiness needs to be engaged, and this is a great story explaining how big farms can work in providing sustainably-grown food!
Thanks, Leon!
Check out TreeHugger's coverage of this story: An excerpt: "In a provocative OnEarth Magazine piece written for the NRDC, one reporter argues that large-scale monoculture must be part of the solution to greener farming if we are to have any hope of digging out of the mess we're in."
This piece is continuing to make a splash in the green blogosphere. Here's more coverage and commentary from Heather Clancy at SmartPlanet: And Leon Kaye over at TriplePundit:
To me, in the long run, the final arbiter / accountancy / measure of sustainability will be soil carbon content. Once this royal road is constructed, traffic cops ( Carbon Board ) in place, the truth of land-management and Biochar systems will be self-evident. A dream I've had for years is to base the coming carbon economy firmly on the foundation of top soils. My read of the agronomic history of civilization shows that the Kayopo Amazon Indians and the Egyptians were the only ones to maintain fertility for the long haul, millennium scales. Egypt has now forsaken their geologic advantage by building the Aswan dam, and are stuck, with the rest of us, in the soil C mining, NPK rat race to the bottom. The meta-analysis of Syn-N and soil Carbon content show our dilemma; The Ag Soil Carbon standard is in final review by the AMS branch at USDA. Read over the work so far; With the Obama administration funding an inter-departmental climate effort of NASA, NOAA, USDA, & EPA, and now even the CIA is opening the data coffers, then soil carbon sensors may be less than 5 years away. I'm told by the Jet Propulsion Lab mission specialists responsible for the suite of earth sensing satellites, that they will be reading soil carbon using multiple proxy measurements in 5 years. Reading soil moisture to 3 foot dept in two year with SMAP, Reading GHG emissions and biomass from the tree tops down next year when the Orbital Carbon Observer (OCO, get it:) is rebooted, to 1 Ha resolution. Then, any farmer can click "Google Carbon maps" to see the soil carbon accounted to his good work, a level playing field to be a soil sink banker. The Moon Pie in the sky funding should be served to JPL Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left. Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it. WorldStoves in Haiti ; and The Biochar Fund deserves your attention and support. Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent. Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon, Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar. Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle. Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw; "Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes; "Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !". Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar. Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come. Microbes like to sit down when they eat. By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life. ( These oxidised surface charges; carbonyl. hydroxyl, carboxylic acids, and lactones or quinones, have as well a role as signaling substances towards bacteria, fungi and plants.) This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it. Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out. US Focused Biochar report: Assessment of Biochar's Benefits for the USA Erich J. Knight Chairman; Markets and Business Review Committee US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University, June 27-30
I am elated to hear mega businesses are now quantifying efficiency of resources, realizing it effects the sustainability of their bottom line - better late than never. I am dismayed to see the nascent concept of sustainability being "defined" by Unilever and Walmart. Any accounting of environmental impact that ends at the point of sale is woefully inadequate and misleading. For example, a tomato sauce with high levels of sodium contributes to the high rate of heart disease in our country creating a huge environmental impact after sale. A simpler example, a plastic toolbox might look good compared to a metal toolbox in a "sustainability metric" because it is lighter to transport to the point of sale, but if the plastic one breaks in the first week and leaches toxic chemicals into a landfill for years, it's comparison to a metal box looks a lot worse after the sale. I sincerely hope that NRDC uses whatever influence it has in this process to encourage the use of understandable words like "cost analysis" and leave the word "sustainability" for the big concept of choosing human actions that leave the biosphere intact for our great-great grandchildren. In that sense, no matter how efficiently resources are use to create and sell a product, the most sustainable action is often not to make or buy the product at all.
Great article! After reading this, I'm wondering why the auto industry, textiles, electronics, etc couldn't do the same thing. I worked in the Stockton Unilever plant one summer a little over ten years ago as a mechanical engineering intern and probalby helped collect some of the data that is referred to in this article (green, orange, and red tomatoes in the benchtop evaporator), and years ago, I used to ride with my dad in one of the trucks that hauled those tomatoes! The bench top, pilot plant, and main facility are very impressive. I think that major strides will be made in sustainability when environmentalism is no longer viewed as a religion practiced by a fringe element of people who smoke cloves, wear birkenstocks, and bathe infrequently. The environment and sustainability, and long term profitibility of any economic enterprise are inextricably interwoven, and smart folks are starting to recognize that and act on it. This is a perfect example.
Great! But is the food so produced wholesome--nutritious and contaminant free? Blessings, kc
Thanks for a thoughtful and progressive look at how we can feed the world without ruining it. Folk medicine, like ancient farming methods, incorporates a lot of wisdom. I'm just glad that when *my* kids get sick I have access to better tools than cider vinegar and hot towels. The ancient methods were not sustainable at all, as the gruesome historical record of famine, diseases,and consequent war amply demonstrates.
When does it end. We could bury ourselves in the quagmire of data..carbon foot printing every product at every step is ridiculous. It comes down to dollars and cents for all of us. Even those strong proponents of strict environmental ideas have to admit that if a head of lettuce costs $10 because of all the extra moitoring added costs for "sustainable" production, we will end up with more people relying on the government to sustain them. Farmers are the best stewards of the land and if they want to survive and have their business thrive, they have to find ways to do more with less. I work in the industry and don't know a single grower who "wastes" money with unnecessary chemical application or fertilizer inputs. Going organic isn't the answer because the bottom line is that organic yeilds typically are about 60-80% of conventional yeilds. In some crops it may be less. To product the same amount of food, we would then need 20-40% more acres, more water, run more equipment to farm those acres. How is that responsible and sustainable? I'm not saying there is not room to improve and working in California, one of the heaviest regualted states, we certainly can get better with the materials we use and the efficiencies we can gain through sustainable methods but we cant do it for free and we can't raise your food without some farming activity. Is Walmart going to require the same sustainalbilty index on all its products manufactured in China?? We need to get real.
good points
Nice article just a few comments. I am a 4th generation grower in California who has been sustainable long before Wal-Mart and Unilever thought it was politically correct ,actually the majority of growers in my area are the same. We have to be sustainable because big corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Uniliver and Heinz are reducing our bottom line. They are promoting giant corporate farms like Muller and eliminating the small Family farms who are the back bone of California agriculture. So in closing the Muller farm sounds like a feel good story,set up by one of the corporate giants.Maybe you should of did some actual investigative reporting,.