A brouhaha in the columns of this magazine some months ago brought to light the different ways in which various parts of grain-based foods look on sustainability. While nearly everyone seems to understand that this concept means refraining from actions that would be deleterious to the future use of natural assets, how it is translated into operations is not agreed upon. Nor is there agreement on how best to measure sustainability in the production of an individual plant or company. These are important matters that should not be left unresolved for long.

At issue earlier was how the price of a product belongs or does not belong in a discussion of sustainability. Any number of sustainability advocates, in an effort to attract the widest support, have promised that one sure result will be lower prices. This claim mainly relates to the idea that sustainability emphasizes reductions in distances traveled by ingredients and finished products, and that this is sure to lower costs. Localized production is also supposed to provide cost savings, although these benefits are tenuous at best. Often overlooked is the commitment of time and money that individual companies will be making to comply with sustainability expectations. Such investments require returns sufficient to justify these outlays.

Many of the new strategies favored by sustainability advocates focus on changing how crops are grown. This is in line with the basic belief that a product is sustainable if its production enables the resources from which it is made to continue to be available for future generations. As the result of this emphasis on farming, attention is being given to changing wheat production from annual to perennial plants, which are plants that will consistently produce wheat without annual planting. This same possibility captured environmentalists long before sustainability gained the upper hand. Successful development of perennial plants producing the qualities of wheat needed in food production requires such a huge investment that it takes real bravado to endorse this approach.

The end result of this multi-faceted debate on how best to achieve sustainability in food production boils down to decisions about what food people want to eat, and then how to make that production system sustainable. This is one of the most difficult choices before society. That is especially the case as it is recognized that agriculture, and its role in food production, may not be the problem in ending global warming or other environmental issues. The pertinent question is whether it makes sense to look to agriculture for reducing carbon when other areas offer quicker and better ways to achieve this end.

Turning away from agriculture as the road to sustainability in food production means much sharper focus on intermediate and final processors — the businesses comprising grain-based foods. Along that very line, the International Baking Industry Exposition, held last week, is to be commended for giving special attention to baking suppliers that have made a serious effort toward achieving sustainability. Numerous ways have been used to recognize those suppliers to baking that foster energy conservation, reduce water use, cut back on landfill waste and/or have reduced their overall impact on the environment.

In the end, though, it is consumers and the companies that concentrate on the retail marketplace that will drive sustainability to be a core strategy of grain-based food companies. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. implemented an environmentally preferable purchasing policy that had immediate repercussions on companies providing it with grain-based foods. Scorecards meant to reflect a range of environmentally friendly steps are being adopted with increasing frequency to the point that one observer has rightly called this a “wake up call for suppliers.” But like the sweeping changes some push for in agriculture, the steps pursued by retailers reflect different requirements and different levels of vigor. Without an agreed upon system for measuring what’s been done, progress toward sustainability will be slow and real change will not occur.