Forward Progress

Published online: Jan 28, 2022 Articles Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the January 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

“Sustainability.” It’s a word everyone seems to simultaneously love using at every turn, yet rolls their eyes if someone else starts in on the subject. Everybody agrees that sustainability is an ideal worth pursuing. But the word has more definitions than Liz Taylor had husbands, which has at times made it difficult for agriculture as a whole to really say with any gumption, “Why, yes, as a matter of fact, we are sustainable.”

About 10 years ago, a group of potato processors, farmers, distributors and a major restaurant chain got together to see whether they could formulate a plan for the potato industry to effectively and profitably lead the way in agricultural sustainability. The collaboration led to the creation of the Potato Sustainability Initiative to address potato sustainability challenges. Over time, the program has evolved into the Potato Sustainability Alliance (PSA), a roundtable format focused on defining, measuring and advancing the potato industry’s sustainability.

PSA is made up of farmers, supply chain partners, non-profit organizations and advisors who work together “to improve the environmental, social and economic aspects of potato production in the United States and Canada.” In conjunction with industry partners, PSA supports the identification and adoption of sustainable production practices that meet consumer and market expectations by benchmarking and communicating the sustainability performance of potato production.

“The potato industry has a good story to tell,” says John Mesko, who was named PSA’s executive director in 2021. “Potatoes are a productive crop; they’re a healthy food. There are plenty of good stories to tell about the dietary benefits of potatoes. But on the production side, we haven’t always highlighted some of those same good stories. That’s what we’re trying to do at PSA.”

To help quantify the sustainability practices of the potato industry—and thus share that story with the rest of the supply chain—PSA conducts an annual survey of 500 to 600 potato growers, packers and processors, asking for details about such topics as cultural practices, integrated pest management programs, and water conservation. PSA compiles that data to build a story for retailers, foodservice operators and others down the supply chain to be able to tell to consumers. They’ve been able to develop robust metrics to help drive improvements in productivity and profitability, while taking great strides in environmental protection.

“There is a real understanding among farmers of the importance of demonstrating the sustainable farming practices they’ve already implemented,” says Mesko. “But we do not have the luxury of treading water. This notion of continual improvement is something every component of our industry needs to be implementing.”

Of course, orchestrating an industry-wide campaign to distill everyone’s efforts into a single, coherent story is easier said than done. Mesko is the first to admit that, for all its value, a survey of a fraction of the industry isn’t sufficient long-term. While the finer details of a plan to better tell potatoes’ sustainability story remain cloudy, Mesko is optimistic about the industry’s ability to coalesce around a unified message of sustainability. That begins, he says, with increased involvement from participants at all levels of the potato supply chain.

“PSA is not one entity’s mouthpiece,” he says. “This is an industry-wide effort. Every farmer, every company that processes potatoes, anyone who sells inputs targeted toward potatoes, every restaurant or retailer that sells potatoes—we want input from all of them. Because the last thing we want to do is build a vehicle nobody wants to ride in.

“If there is anything someone in the potato supply chain thinks the PSA needs to know, we want to hear it.”

 

To learn more about the Potato Sustainability Alliance or to become a member, go to www.potatosustainability.org.