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.