Published online: Jun 17, 2009
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By Philip Brasher

Define "sustainable farming."
Lawyers, growers, environmentalists and government officials have been arguing
about that for decades.
Now, efforts are under way internationally and in the United States to establish standards for sustainable agriculture that could have a real impact on the bottom lines of both farmers and agribusinesses.
The initiatives are intended to develop rules for certifying foods and biofuels as "sustainable."
So far, the rules look good for big biotech companies such as Monsanto and DuPont. The standards being developed don't rule out genetically engineered seeds and could discourage the use of pesticides that farmers don't need with the biotech soybeans and corn popular in the U.S. and South America.
Both the international and U.S. standard-setting bodies reached key milestones recently.
A group called the Round Table on Responsible Soy reached agreement on a set of standards covering treatment of workers as well as rules protecting water and soil quality, preventing greenhouse gas emissions and banning dangerous farm chemicals.
The standards are to be field tested over the coming year. Once finalized, they could be used to certify soybean oil used for biodiesel in the European Union, which is moving toward environmental certifications for biofuels.
U.S. growers didn't take part in writing the standards, but they could benefit from them. Jason Clay, who has followed the round table's work as director of market transformation for the World Wildlife Fund, said the standards could restrict soybean production and increase prices for the crop.
The standards will discourage deforestation in places such as Brazil and "reduce the biological impacts from producing soy," Clay said. "Increasingly people are going to have to actually comply with this to get access to markets."
The U.S. initiative isn't as far along, but the standards it produces will cover all crops, not just soybeans.
The standards are being developed under auspices of the American National Standards Institute, a private group that accredits standards for a wide array of products, including baby cribs, bicycle helmets and lawnmowers.