New Washington State University Program Tackles Challenge of Developing Science-based Tools to Measure Sustainability in Ag and Food Systems

PULLMAN, Wash. – A new Washington State University program has been charged with developing science-based tools to measure the sustainability of food production systems. The program, called “Measure to Manage: Food and Farm Diagnostics for Sustainability and Health,” or M2M, just received a three-year, $240,000 grant from the Clif Bar Family Foundation.

M2M will develop new, and refine existing, science-based tools to quantify and compare the nutritional quality of food, agricultural and food production safety parameters, and agriculture’s environmental impact. Through web-based and other open-access systems, the tools will be made publicly available, especially to decision makers and their advisors, including food-system professionals, researchers and policymakers.

Dr. Charles Benbrook, research professor, WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Photo courtesy Washington State University. Click image to download hi-resolution version.
Dr. Charles Benbrook, research professor, WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Photo courtesy Washington State University. Click image to download hi-resolution version.

“Our new program will strive to improve the return on time and resources invested across the agricultural sector in complying with a growing array of standards and certification programs by measuring performance attributes with clear links to outcomes that improve people’s lives and promote environmental quality,” said Charles Benbrook, M2M program leader and WSU research professor. Resolving conflicts between different sets of standards and certification requirements is a core M2M goal.

Multiple efforts are under way across the agricultural sector and food industry to develop and adopt sustainable farming systems that produce food with benefits like more nutrients and less risky pesticide residues. New standard-setting and certification programs for food quality and safety are emerging at state and national levels and from several international organizations. M2M will address what makes one farming system more or less sustainable than another and how farmers, food companies and third-party certifiers can quantify improvements in food nutritional quality and safety.

The grant from the Clif Bar Family Foundation will accelerate M2M’s development and provide public access to program results and analytical tools via the M2M website.

“Our partnership with Washington State University couldn’t be more timely,” said Kit Crawford, president of Clif Bar Family Foundation. “Agriculture has a huge impact on the health of people and the planet. Now more than ever, we need to back the rigorous, scientific study of organic, sustainable agriculture and its many benefits.”

“M2M will serve as a catalyst for enhancing the sophistication of measurement methods within multidisciplinary and multi-institutional teams conducting research on a wide variety of agricultural and food systems,” said Chad Kruger, director of WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, the institutional home of M2M. Sharper quantification of baseline levels of performance at the beginning of projects, along with better ways to track the impacts of ongoing work, will help produce more rigorous analysis of research outcomes.

Several companies striving to enhance product quality, reduce their environmental footprint and document progress toward sustainability have provided startup capital for the program. These include United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) and the UNFI Foundation, Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, Whole Foods and Stonyfield, Inc. Additionally, a grant from Annie’s Inc. will support work to calculate the embedded environmental and food safety attributes from organic ingredients.

“All of the companies providing core support for M2M recognize the need for more careful research on the impacts of different farming methods and technologies, from organic farming to genetic engineering,” said Michael Funk, chairman and co-founder of UNFI. “Our hope is the M2M program will draw upon the tremendous scientific talent across WSU in creating next-generation, open-access measurement tools to guide innovation and track progress along food value chains.”

Visit the M2M website at for more information on goals, areas of research and activities.