Sustainability defined, and defining agriculture

By Dave White, Ohio Livestock Coalition

A couple of months ago I attended two professional conferences about animal agriculture where they used the “S” word and the “T” word throughout both of them, the “S word being “sustainability” and the “T” word being transparency.

When you hear the term “sustainability” being used in agricultural circles, what comes to mind? Is there a definition that we can all agree upon? Are we all talking about the same thing?

When I “searched” for a definition for sustainable agriculture, I came across this: a practice of farming that uses the principles of ecology, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment, an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term to:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs,
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends,
  • Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls,
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations, and
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

Instead of focusing on “sustainable agriculture” perhaps we should initially look at what it means to be sustainable. Sustainability is the capacity to endure. For humans, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship and the responsible management of various resources. In ecology, sustainability describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time, a necessary pre-condition for the wellbeing of humans and other organisms.

There is little doubt that sustainability is the most misunderstood term in the food industry. If you read articles in the popular press, you would be led to believe it can only be achieved by consuming animal products that are grass-fed, locally-produced, organic and preferably that you slaughtered yourself. To suggest that only a small portion of each animal protein sector is sustainable does an injustice to all, particularly when there is a market for every production system within the animal protein sector.

The most widely used definition of sustainability was originally coined by the Brundtland Commission, which said that sustainability “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Therefore, reasoned Jude Capper of Washington State University and Richard Gebhart of the University of Tulsa, sustainability should focus on three components: environmental stewardship, economic viability and social responsibility.

The Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply believes that sustainable laying hen systems need to consider environmental impacts, food safety, worker safety, animal health and well-being, and food affordability. When asked whether there is a correlation between the size of a farm and whether it sustainably produces food, food experts said it all comes down to management.

What defines sustainable agriculture has also been a discussion on Food Dialogues, which was created by the U. S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). In response to question posted on Food Dialogues, “Are farmers and ranchers really focused on sustainability?” a farmer responded that “yes, we are focused on sustainability. Without it, our livelihood does not exist. We must sustain the land, water and air in order to provide a nutritional product for your family and ours to consume. If we do not do these things, we lose income and lose our farm or ranch. These farms and ranches are not just a way of life for us, but also a business that must be nurtured.”

Yes, farmers were practicing sustainability long before anyone else had heard of the word. A good measure of sustainability is that the productivity of American agriculture has been steadily increasing. Keeping farmland fertile and productive is just one aspect of understanding sustainability. Equally important is the more recent concept of environmental stewardship, especially as it relates to the environmental impact that farming and ranching has on the planet.

Farmers and ranchers are reducing their impact on the environment by minimizing when possible the use of inputs and resources from water to fertilizer to pesticides, employing cutting-edge solutions for clean water, air and soil. Farmers are using a variety of innovative management techniques that minimize runoff and groundwater pollution. They’re also using a variety of innovative techniques that have significantly reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides, including targeted spraying and the development of pest- and disease-resistant seeds, and seeds that require less watering (and consequently produce less runoff).  Farmers and ranchers are taking a triple-bottom line approach, focusing equally on people, planet and business in their daily operations.

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  1. I always tell my students there are three components to sustainability – economics, ecology and community. If any of those three things are not a part of your definition, you are not truly sustainable. You must steward your resources, you must be able to make money, and you must be able to respond to the needs and expectations of your neighbors and customers or you won’t survive, no matter what business or industry you are in.

  2. Dave does a good job of reviewing the varying perspectives on sustainability and pointing out the themes common among them: environmental stewardship and economic viability and social responsibility. When you talk about sustainability you need to be clear about what you’re sustaining and over what time frame. If we’re talking about agricultural sustainability over decades or generations, then Fred Kirshenmann, Leopold Center Distinguished Fellow and North Dakota farmer/philosopher, sums up sustainability in terms of a challenge, “how do you farm with higher temperatures, half the water, more variable and extreme weather, and oil at $200/bbl”? Sustainability in that context would mean more productivity than we have now to equitably provide for a growing world population, but with much less (or at least much more costly) fertilizer, fuel, irrigation, and uniformity. Chances are that creativity and a lot of progress across biology, ecology, technology, economy, society and all scales of farming are going to be needed for our great grandchildren to endure this challenge. We’ve all got our work cut out for us!

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