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The Short Guide to MPS, Veriflora & Food Alliance Labels
| Jennifer Duffield White
>> Published Date: 7/26/2012
One by one, North American growers have begun pursuing third-party certification, identifying their businesses and plants as “sustainable.” While the number of certified growers in North America isn’t huge, glancing through the list of companies provides an impressive slice of Who’s Who in the horticulture industry. The best we can figure, based on the names provided to us, is that at least 13% of the largest growers in the country are currently certified. Eight years ago, that number was zero.
So what does it cost? Is it legitimate? What are the benefits? And which one do you choose?
Let’s start with the basics.
Veriflora: A sustainability label that caters to cut flowers and potted ornamentals, this standard was developed by Scientific Certification Systems, which specializes in third-party certifications for dozens of industries.
MPS: The MPS-ABC sustainability label is just one of many labels MPS has developed for the floriculture industry. Based in the Netherlands, it certifies flower growers around the world.
The Food Alliance: In May 2012, the Food Alliance introduced a new certification for greenhouse and nursery operations. It is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and certifies some 320 agricultural operations for sustainable management. The standard was developed with input from the Oregon Association of Nurseries.
USDA Organic: Even though this isn’t really a sustainability standard in that it doesn’t look at measures such as energy consumption, employee safety, water and so on, this label plays a large role in food production certifications. We’ve included a few tidbits of available information in this article because it’s an important certification for those in
Inspections & data
Food Alliance: During inspection, growers need to provide records that allow inspectors to verify active and responsible management of environmental and human resources (e.g., IPM records for scouting, monitoring and pesticide application; safety trainings; energy, water and waste bills). Growers seeking certification must meet minimum thresholds in five areas: soil and water conservation; wildlife habitat and biodiversity conservation; adaptive management of pests, diseases and weeds (IPM); safe and fair working conditions; and operational efficiencies (energy use, recycling, etc.). Information reviewed at the initial inspection establishes a baseline. Data/metrics are used at subsequent inspections to verify improvements over time. You’re required to set goals and demonstrate progress towards continual improvement.
MPS: It uses a sustainability scorecard based on the registration of how you use crop protection agents, fertilizers, energy, water and recycling. Participants must register the accumulated use per category every four weeks. This means you submit 13 times per year, using a digital program called MPS-ACTRES. This program has been individualized for North America and uses the U.S. Imperial measurement system. Growers are benchmarked to other (national and international) growers with the same crop.
Veriflora: Annually, you submit crop production area and annual yield, agrochemical use, water use, energy use, waste disposal and recycling records. It also looks at employee and community relations, and product quality. Certification is achieved through implementation of corrective actions in response to any non-conformities issued in the audit report. The certification decision is rendered by SCS after a review of a self-assessment workbook, the audit report, and corrective actions and evidence submitted.
Food Alliance: Growers pay an inspection fee and a licensing fee. The annual licensing fee is based on a percentage of the company’s gross annual sales, and is capped at $5,000 per year. Sales less than $100,000 have a $100 flat fee. The fee on additional sales from $100,000 to $1,000,000 is 0.1%. The fee on additional sales over $1,000,000 is 0.05%. The inspection fee (every three years) for nursery operations is the actual cost of inspection (inspector’s time plus travel expense), plus an administrative fee. However, in 2012, there’s a special deal, and nurseries signing up for certification receive half off their annual licensing fee for the first three-year term of their
MPS: All growers pay a basic fee of about $ 2,500 per year (independent of size). Besides the basic fee, participants also pay a variable fee, which is connected to the area in cultivation (size of the greenhouse or field). For greenhouses, MPS calculates approximately $100 per hectare (about 2.2 acres). In a field, it’s about $30 per hectare. For the variable fee, the maximum is set at $1,000. The fee includes free access to the digital registration tool, MPS-ACTRES; one start-up visit by a regional coordinator; access to MPS’s help desk; four qualifications on a yearly basis; and all costs in relation to the initial, regular and desk audits (including travel and overnight stay of auditor).
Veriflora: The cost of the audit is inclusive of all preparation, auditor time and travel, the annual audit report, certificate maintenance and technical support related to certification throughout the year. Fees are determined based upon size and complexity of the operation, and the management system in place. All charges are based on time and materials. Initial certification fees start at approximately $3,400 with additional variation based upon acreage, auditor travel, time and auditor day rate. Administrative fees, such as audit planning, technical report review, certification review, client support, program administration, are included in the cost of certification. There are no separate licensing fees. Annual certification renewal fees are assessed to cover the costs of renewal desk and field audits, and typically run about one-half to two-thirds of the initial year costs.
The bottom line
In a lot of ways, the three sustainability labels are similar, though each goes about measuring things differently. Any grower thinking about signing up would be wise to thoroughly investigate each option, consider their own business model and question what they hope to achieve in the process.
Learning to be sustainable—label or no label—is as much about scrutinizing everyday details as it is about big, lofty goals.
Why Get Certified?
Getting certified as a sustainable or organic grower is an investment of time and money, and while it may add value to your product, we aren’t exactly seeing growers charging a premium because their plants are certified. So why do it?
It’s a complex answer. But here are some of the reasons we heard:
After David Kirwan recorded three months of data for Phoenix Foliage, a division of ForemostCo, and reviewed his initial MPS qualification, he said, “It’s good what [MPS] does for the environment and it’s even better for the bottom line.”
- The perception of quality. Some growers see certification as a way of standing out to their retailers, proving they provide the highest-quality brand possible.
- To tell their story. They want consumers to know and value the environmental programs they’ve implemented.
- To benchmark production practices.
- To reduce operating costs.
- To get a clearer picture of management decisions and improve the bottom line.
- To establish a clear path to improving their operations. Many growers comment that it’s like having a consultant come into their business to suggest changes and monitor outcomes.
- To improve efficiencies and make the business more sustainable for the future.
- Retailers are asking suppliers for information on sustainability efforts.
- Retailers are demanding certification, or indicate the possibility of a requirement down the road. In the U.S., Shopko already requires plant suppliers to be Veriflora certified. Internationally, MPS has seen several retailers require that plant suppliers get certified.
- The added marketing backup of the label. Veriflora reports its clients get individual marketing support for branding the certification to clients and consumers via press, co-op ads and in-person events. It also does media relations in both trade and consumer publications, with advertising around major flower holidays. Food Alliance also provides limited marketing to retailers and consumers.
- To demonstrate industry leadership.
- To enhance community relations.
- To enhance employee relations and foster company pride.
- It’s the right thing to do.
Mike Nehls, owner of Native Grounds Nursery, Brownsville, Oregon, which is en route to becoming the first certified nursery under the Food Alliance label, notes, “We all can get caught up in the everyday pressures of running our businesses. An independent second set of eyes challenges us to constantly improve, think strategically and eliminate complacency.”
Sandra Hering, who works for MPS in North America, may have summed it up best: “As an industry, we cannot sit on the sidelines of the sustainability question, waiting for retailers and consumers to ask questions regarding our sustainability or certifications. We should be working to create answers to such questions and document our track records with a database of the facts, which demonstrate our improvements and our sincerity on the issues of our
To learn more about any of these certifications, please contact the organizations directly.
Charlotte Smit (western U.S.),
Tel: (805) 524-9685
Sandra Hering (eastern U.S.)
Tel: (508) 758-3008
The Food Alliance
Tel: (503) 493-1066
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