Sustaining Each Other

During COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability takes center stage

Published online: Jun 21, 2020 Articles Mike Wenkel, Chief Operating Officer, National Potato Council
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This column appears in the July 2020 issue of Potato Grower.

Two decades ago, the term “sustainability” may have seemed foreign to most growers, but the practices that fell under the definition were commonplace. Safe pesticide applications, conserving resources, efficient water usage, food handling practices, reducing food waste, and other sustainable efforts have long been at the heart of the potato industry’s commitment to safely and responsibly feed the nation. 

As consumer demand grows for production practices that align with customer and market expectations, the potato industry has gotten better about telling our sustainability story. In early 2020, the potato industry came together to launch the Potato Sustainability Alliance (PSA) to support the efforts of growers to adopt sustainable practices and communicate those efforts with consumers. The alliance now provides a platform for farmers, supply chain partners, industry organizations, non-governmental organizations, universities and advisors to work together to define, measure and advance potato sustainability in the U.S. and Canada.

During Potato Expo 2020 in January, the Eye on Potatoes podcast brought together some of the industry’s leaders for a discussion on the cooperative work to support, advance and communicate potato sustainability across the supply chain. Host Lane Nordlund visited with guests including Tommy Jackson, sustainable solutions account manager at Syngenta USA; Tammy McElroy, senior director of sustainability at Sysco; Jolyn Rasmussen, senior manager of raw product development and sustainability at J.R. Simplot; Laura Scandurra, executive director of the PSA; and Ed Schneider, partner at Schneider Farms in Washington State.

I was pleased to join that discussion, where we talked about the PSA’s role in advancing sustainability and enhancing engagement and collaboration across the value chain.

However, we all know that the world in which we lived in January is not the same one we live in today. Today, the potato supply and value chain look much different. And as I write this in May 2020, the world in which you read this may look more different still. Yet the potato industry’s commitment to sustainability—and in telling our sustainability success story—could never be more important.  

Not only does the sustainability conversation still hold true, it is being played out in the media for all the world to see. During the early days of government-mandated shutdowns, images of piles of dumped potatoes went viral on social media. And stories about losing 1 to 2 billion pounds of potatoes caused some to question the potato industry’s commitment to responsibly feeding the nation.

With food bank lines around the country stretching for miles, potato farmers, state potato organizations and industry partners stepped up to the plate. Not only have they helped donate millions of pounds of potatoes and potato products to food-insecure Americans, they have proven to the world that they are committed to ensuring the fruits of their labor aren’t going to waste when so many are in need.

Today, the NPC and state organizations are working with our industry and governmental partners to direct potatoes to consumers, food banks and government-supported feeding programs, as well as doing all we can to ensure that our family farmers stay in business when the traditional supply chains dry up.

In early May, the potato industry welcomed the USDA’s announcement of a $50 million surplus potato purchase to support the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the largest potato purchase in the USDA’s history and the largest of all the specialty crop purchases under the latest round of Section 32 food purchases. It also came on the heels of previous food purchases and the launch of the department’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, including $461 million directed for fresh fruits and vegetables, which we hope will free up some additional room in the potato supply chain.

Given the size of the crisis and the continued massive oversupply of potatoes, these purchases are only a partial down payment on the industry’s overall relief needs. More will be needed, and soon. But in the short term, the USDA’s food purchase should provide a shot in the arm to struggling operations, give family farms the hope that more relief is on the way, and allow the industry to continue to feed the world even in the most challenging of times. 

To listen to this episode, “Telling the Potato Sustainability Success Story,” search for Eye on Potatoes wherever you listen to podcasts.