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Sustainable Fruit Production by Ian Brown

Posted by: | April 11, 2011 Comments Off on Sustainable Fruit Production by Ian Brown |


Rather than first define what sustainable fruit production is, it would be more helpful to first briefly outline the consequences of unsustainable fruit production. The depletion of soil quality, pest outbreaks, and other production inefficiencies caused by the over-use and misuses of farmland are among some of the harms suffered by farmers as a result of unsustainable agricultural practices. Petrochemicals have helped farmers maintain the status quo of agricultural practices by means of insecticides and fertilizers, which inevitably only exacerbate the problem. These petro-band-aids precipitate pollution, low quality and chemically tainted food, and more.

What is sustainable fruit production?

Generally, sustainable fruit production will minimize the aforementioned consequences produced by status quo  agricultural practices. To do this, farmers must become less reliant on the “easy” and expedient solutions (petrochemicals) to production inefficiencies. Two important means of supplanting the need for and the consequences of petrochemical use in orchards are 1) drip irrigation and 2) intra-orchard biodiversity. Drip irrigation is a hugely more efficient means of watering orchards than flood irrigation. Drip irrigation saves water while reducing erosion and toxin-carrying runoff. Meanwhile, biodiversity within an orchard can provide numerous benefits that supplant the need for petrochemicals. Legumes growing within an orchard naturally infuse nitrogen into the soil; mixing different species of fruit trees within a single orchard helps to prevent pests from jumping tree-to-tree; and border plantings of certain plant species provide an alternative habitat for pests that would otherwise concentrate within the orchard. These two simple practices save water, reduce the need for petrochemicals, reduce pollution, and maintain the soil quality of orchards. Thus, sustainable agriculture not only improves the quality of orchard produce, it is also ecologically responsible. 

How do we get there?

Obviously, traditional command and control regulation of any industry can dictate an industry’s behavior. However, because we live in a society highly hostile to government regulation and because the government is probably ill equipped to dictate such particularized behavior as what border planting to situate next to what fruit trees, perhaps the best means of encouraging sustainable fruit production is through market mechanisms.

Europe’s Integrated Fruit Production (IFP) program offers certification to orchards that meet its ecologically based production criteria. This certification then gives complying orchards an economic advantage in the burgeoning green market. Europe’s IFP program prohibits the use of certain petrochemicals, and also encourages the efficiency and biodiversity practices discussed above. A description of Europe’s IFP program can be found at http://www.pmac.net/intefrt.htm. As long as a farmer does not use restricted pesticides, minimizes use of permitted chemicals, and meaningfully promotes water efficiency and biodiversity within his or her orchard, that farmer may be eligible for IFP certification.

Another economically driven vehicle for sustainable fruit production is the market for organics. Although organic certification, unlike Europe’s IFP certification, does not require ecologically-based farming practices, ecological farming techniques naturally lend themselves to organic farmers because they are restricted from using chemicals in their growing processes. However, the ecological services provided by intra-orchard biodiversity have thus far proven insufficient to fully compensate for the lack of petrochemical aids. Because the organic standards are so stringent, organic orchards have to contend with more pests, shorter fruit shelf life, and significantly higher production prices, which the consumer is often unwilling to pay. So while organic certification encourages ecologically sound orchard farming, IFP or IFP-like certification poses a more realistic means of encouraging more sustainable fruit production. Moreover, consumers are growing increasingly concerned not only with the quality of the food they buy, but also with impact its production has on the environment. IFP certification speaks to both, while the organics label, though it may imply a sustainable mode of production, only directly speaks to the quality of the food. The following article provides detailed statistics on consumer preferences in the market of organic produce as compared to ecologically sound produce: http://organic.tfrec.wsu.edu/OrganicIFP/Marketing/AltMarket.PDF.


Certification stands as the primary market-driven means of encouraging sustainable fruit production. However, getting stamped by an “ecolabel” is only as meaningful as society says it is. The organics label carries substantial weight in the U.S. market. However, fruit producers have trouble meeting the organics standards without raising prices so high as to deter consumers.  Unfortunately, the IFP label, although meaningful in that fruit producers have to meet actual and substantive criteria to receive certification, carries little or no weight in the U.S. for many reasons. First, the only IFP program currently in the U.S. is limited to the Pacific Northwest and focuses only on the type and timing of pesticides used on orchards. Second, the IFP label is virtually unknown to the public at large and so it carries little weight in the market. Therefore, in order to truly change the status quo of fruit production in the U.S., a more comprehensive IFP or IFP-like program needs to take root in the country.

An IFP program cannot exist in the U.S. without Congressional action and regulatory oversight of certification. The National Organics Program, run by the USDA, has given substantial weight and brought much attention to the organics label. Although there has been significant controversy over organic standards, federal legislation and regulation have set hard rules and accredited many institutions to take charge of certification and monitoring. All in all, the organics program has been a success. Why reinvent the wheel? The U.S. needs an IFP program. Such certification will stand out as ecologically friendly while also staying more affordable than its organic counterpart. To institute it Congress needs to enact a legal framework for its existence similar to the framework that has given organics such success.

There has been no better time to start an IFP certification system in the United States. While the public is still concerned with quality and ecological impact of produce, the economic reality of today is steering consumers to low-cost items. IFP standards are easier for farmers to meet than organic standards and are thus cost-effective. Moreover, IFP certification speaks directly to the environmental impact produce has, giving it a competitive advantage over the organics label. Lastly, because IFP certification can be competitive and easier to attain than organic certification, more farmers will migrate from their traditional unsustainable modes of production to the IFP’s sustainable practices than they did with organics.

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