Who hijacked ‘Sustainable?’

Did you ever wonder about a word?  In agriculture, one of the most used (and misused) terms around is ‘sustainable.’  Just what does that mean?  The World Dictionary definition of ‘sustainable’ says “to keep up or keep going, as an action or process.”

Well, let’s apply that to agriculture.  In 1996, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman issued a memorandum on USDA sustainable agriculture policy. It stated, “USDA is committed to working toward the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of diverse food, fiber, agriculture, forest, and range systems. USDA will balance goals of improved production and profitability, stewardship of the natural resource base and ecological systems, and enhancement of the vitality of rural communities.”

If that statement is broken down, you see economics and the environment share equal footing in providing diverse food, etc. systems. That means both economic and environmental concerns are important.

Then, maybe the biggest word of all is used.  The next part reads, ‘USDA will BALANCE (bold/caps added) goals of improved production and profitability, natural resources and vitality of rural communities.’

It seems that word ‘balance’ has been lost in the discussion.  I know some people, and have met others on social media sites, that prefer organic, only locally grown food, or as close as they can get.  They also understand that while that’s their preference, it takes modern agriculture to supply the needs of the rest of the U.S. and the world.  They also understand the business of farming is just that, a business. They know a profit is necessary, or nothing can be ‘sustainable.’

I’ve also come across activists out there that I’m not sure care about the economic side of agriculture, or anything else for that matter.  They just want their version of ‘sustainable.’  To some on the fringe it may be all organic, everybody around the world with a Victory Garden, an acre or less per family to feed itself, forget the rest of the country, and certainly the world.  Leaving the science of nutrition and safely applied crop inputs aside for the moment, this fringe thinking is as goofy as it gets.  I’m guessing they’ve never been hungry.

Remember that word ‘BALANCE?’  It’s what we need in the discussion.  There is a world to feed.  Only a handful of countries on this planet grow more food/grains than they consume.  Those few countries have to feed the rest.  As mentioned before, any agricultural effort must be profitable, just as any vocational venture.  If it’s not, it certainly won’t be ‘sustainable.’

Also, I’ve heard the flap that if the U.S. changed its agriculture policy, all these other countries could feed themselves.  Well, that’s just not true.  Try a visit to the Middle East, Africa, parts of Europe or Mexico, and it will be clear no amount, yes, that’s no amount, of investment will allow many of those countries to be food self-sufficient.  If the land and the climate aren’t there, it’s not going to happen. Welcome to reality.

The world population is growing.  The need for more food must be ‘BALANCED’ with the environment.  If we truly ruin the environment, that’s not sustainable either.  I think that’s why you will find that modern/traditional agriculture has found ways to use dramatically less chemicals in recent decades, why technology has been able to increase yields without having to cultivate more land, why conservation efforts like no-till and minimum-till practices are on the rise, and the list can go on.  All of this advancement is critical to protecting the environment.

One thing I’ve noticed among those that are on the fringe of the ‘sustainable’ movement, is a marked cynicism.  They can’t seem to believe a farmer may truly care for the land and animals, and want to pass a lifestyle and value system learned on a farm down to the next generation.  Well, here’s a newsflash for you.  There are some true, caring, patriotic, value-based people out there.  And many of them are farmers.

By the way, here’s just a thought while everybody seems to want to define ‘sustainable.’  Think of 4,5,or 6 generations on the same land, drinking the same water, eating the same food, using technology to increase production and environmental stewardship, with the main goal of caring for the land, water, other resources, and animals so the farm can be passed on to the next generation.  That sounds pretty sustainable to me.

The fact is organic farmers and consumers should have their choice.  Locally grown food should be greatly appreciated.  If a group of people in the middle of a city can have a rooftop garden, or an open lot to grow food, that’s wonderful.  There is room for all kinds of agriculture, and one group shouldn’t be putting down the other.  All sorts of agriculture must be ‘sustainable’ to provide the abundant diversity of safe, wholesome, and nutritious food we enjoy.

Let’s don’t put down agriculture by hijacking a word.  Let’s understand the balance of the diversity and the need to feed a hungry planet.  We’ll be better off getting off the fringes, and working together.

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4 Responses to Who hijacked ‘Sustainable?’

  1. Zack says:

    I enjoyed your article. I grew up on a farm and still gravitate to the country, especially around harvest. I try to be open minded. As I grow up I realize there are many sides to a story. I myself have been on both sides of the fence in regards to farming. The places I grew up had beautiful tree lines on old dirt roads. Most of these tree lines were full of pheasant, quail, and other wildlife. It’s been painful to see these go away. I understand we need the farm ground but to me this is where Balance comes to play. Not to mention the amount of money it takes to remove these tree lines. My Dad farmed his whole life. He keeps to himself for the most part but has talked openly about the money spent to remove the trees and how much is actually gained. Years ago we would go out and trim these tree lines. I haven’t seen a farmer in southwest Iowa run a chainsaw in years. Many of these farmers do not have livestock and have time in the winter months. It seems to me, it’s easier to run a bulldozer, gain more ground which equals more revenue. Especially if it’s subsidized. I think the attitude is it’s just one tree line…..but it adds up. Just like farm ground that is being sold off for real estate. Look into Jim Hughes in Glenwood Iowa. I’ve seen it time and time again where money/business is the bottom line, all else is secondary.
    I agree farming has come a long way. I love seeing the buffer zones. Hopefully the creeks are getting better but I’m doubtful. Maybe you can shed some light on this topic? I think we all want what’s best for the world, the economy, and environment. Hopefully the different views will help us all find answers and results. I appreciate your article and realize I’m far from being an expert. I want to learn more and also want to share my personal experience. Take care, Zack

    • Ag Today says:

      Zack, thanks for the message. The environmental side of agriculture is much, much better than 20-30 years ago, for a host of reasons. Also, sometimes the data used to determine agriculture’s role can be misused or may be out of date, but to say all is well or there can’t be improvement would be dishonest. I do think we have to stick with ‘balance,’ and look for true and accurate science. It’s posters like you who have reasonable points and questions, and an obvious appreciation of rural areas, that can keep a valid conversation going. I hope we all can make a difference. Thanks again.

  2. Millie says:

    I have no problem with balance. The problem is that the balance has tipped to far in the direction of profit and economics. It sounds wonderful to feed the world but not at the expense of our water tables and waterways filled with toxic fertilizers and antibiotic run off. So much so that there is a huge dead zone where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

    You cannot feed the world cheap junk food filled with toxic chemicals. Mexico doesn’t need our cheap government subsidized GMO corn. They are the originators of corn. Yet GMO contamination is getting worse in Mexico as a result. Thanks NAFTA. This whole feeding the world is more about profit margins for large agra-business conglomerates. It is the British-East India Company all over again, with the our armies at their disposable.

    Those trees were put in place after the dust bowl to keep the soil in place. To prevent the desertification of the plains.

    • Ag Today says:

      Millie, thanks for the message, however a couple of things are curious in your post. Antibiotic runoff? Not sure where that comes from. The dead zone in the Gulf? Yes, agriculture has its part in that, but you should know that in much of the fertilizer/pesticide debate, most don’t understand that golf courses and urban yards use many, many times more pesticides and fertilizers per acre than any farm, yet you seldom hear of those real point-source pollution sites.

      I realize many don’t understand a ‘cheap-food’ policy. I don’t know if you’ve been to poor areas of Mexico, or Africa, or Europe, or understand that today there are more people on food assistance programs in the U.S. than ever before, but please believe me, more expensive food is not the answer. Of course we can’t destroy the environment, but I would submit to you if that was happening in wholesale fashion, the land that farmers want to pass on to their next generation would not be there.

      Much of the information out there is based on old data, and does not take a look at the amount of no-till or minimum-till practices, or other conservation efforts in place that farmers use. You know, a no-till or minimum-till farming practice can save more soil and water than a tree. We must understand the advances in ag practices, not be locked in a mode of contempt and criticism based on old information.

      Terms like ‘filled with toxic chemicals’ is hardly helpful. If that were the case, the U.S. would not be known for having the safest, most abundant supply of food in the world. Also, NAFTA and world trade is not all about large agribusiness. It’s also about the livelihood of family farmers, and feeding a world at a somewhat affordable price. The fact is farmers and ranchers, with the help of conservation practices, GM technology, equipment technology, and soil science, now provide dramatically more food for the U.S. and the world with less fertilizer and chemicals, less water, and less land than ever before, and the trend continues to improve constantly.

      We need the real discussion about real issues, not contrived ones. I’ll always admit there is room for improvement, but we need that ‘balance’ in the conversation to start at the real ‘truth,’ then work together from there. Thanks for your message.

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