Sustainable agriculture relies on a sustainable supply chain.The agricultural supply chain that stocks the shelves of our grocers, feeds us in restaurants and puts food on our tables is one of the most complex and multifaceted in the modern world. This supply chain must handle the challenge of feeding hundreds of millions of hungry people every hour of every day without destroying the earth is relies on to grow - that's no small undertaking.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the techniques that were able to feed a smaller America can't cope with a global marketplace, expanding population and increasingly adventurous popular taste. Consumers have gotten used to eating fresh corn in the winter, apples in summer and lamb in fall - impossibilities in a local agricultural supply chain.

What's more, the agricultural supply chain has wreaked havoc on the natural order of our world. Commercial fishing has left the oceans depleted, crowded feedlots promote the spread of diseases such as e. coli and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (more commonly known as "mad cow"), the clean water supply continues to shrink and our current supply chain can't cope with a population that's expected to double by 2050, to name only a few of the issues.

The Sustainable Agricultural Partnerships conference, hosted last week in San Francisco by American Business Conferences, heralded a long-awaited shift in the agricultural supply chain. Growers, processors and suppliers are increasingly recognizing the need for a sustainable system. But how can they provide one to a public that expects to find fully-stocked supermarket shelves year-round?

"The agricultural system is not a factory," warned Kevin Rabinovitch, director of sustainability for Mars - manufacturer of M&Ms, Orbit Gum and Pedigree dog food, among other products. That means consumers may have to get used to seasonal products that can only be produced during certain times of year.

Getting competitors to come together to accept regulations that will likely slow their production and increase their costs is one of the most difficult challenges faced by proponents of sustainable agriculture. After all, modern agriculture - with all its machines, pesticides, carbon emissions and antibiotics - developed because it was the most cost-effective way of producing food. But agricultural businesses - and consumers - must accept that environmental sustainability could mean paying a little bit more for goods that are produced in such as a way as to leave a minimal mark on nature.

One way sustainability is being encouraged is through careful monitoring of carbon emissions, energy use and animal welfare, among other indicators of farm health. Keeping a close watch over the supply chain's various components can encourage different suppliers to band together to stay within acceptable limits for environmentally harmful emissions. When every company must conform to standards, no company can cut corners to get an edge.

Businesses should also recognize, however, that sustainable brands have a certain appeal to consumers. After all, thousands of shoppers pay more every day at chains such as Whole Foods for chickens raised humanely, produce grown without pesticides and herbs sourced from local producers. Promoting sustainable practices encourages grocery shoppers with disposable income to spend a bit extra on a product they know isn't damaging the world.

The biggest problem with the agricultural supply chain is the relative lack of flexibility for the farmer. Grain farmers, for example, make about the same amount of money on a bushel of corn than they did 30 years ago. While other components of the supply chain can adjust their prices to account for inflation and other factors, farmers simply can't. They rely on subsidies and cost-reducing measures to turn a profit.

In addition to industry-wide efforts to help small farmers, many major corporations have also independently reached out to the "little guys" in their supply chains. Dole, for example, has invested in helping to teach its banana growers new driving techniques, resulting in a 10-percent reduction in fuel consumption. Not only is this good news for the environment, it's great news for the banana growers: Dole's smaller suppliers have increased their margins, creating stability in the supply chain.
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