Pearl Snaps

Stories of a cowgirl living life by her own lights


Agricultural sustainability, lost in translation

SUSTAINABLE.  What used to be a  well-meaning word, has now reached the point of overuse and misuse that it has lost its true meaning.  Virtually every organic, natural, or environmental organization has hijacked this word claiming that their way is the only one that is truly sustainable.  Attempts have been made by some modern agriculture and organic groups, to come together to define what sustainability in agriculture really is, but they have been unsuccessful.  To read more, click here.

Sustainable agriculture has some important goals in mind:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • 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
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole

Many people have learned to associate this word strictly with organic practices.  I for one though, think that  modern agricultural practices should also be considered sustainable, even more so than organic.  Robert Paarlbarg of Wellesley College stated that, “Not only is organic farming less friendly to the environment than assumed, but modern conventional farming is becoming significantly more sustainable. High-tech farming in rich countries today is far safer for the environment, per bushel of production, than it was in the 1960s.”

In Paarlbarg’s Foreign Policy publication “Attention Whole Food Shoppers” he goes on to talk about the many benefits modern agriculture has brought about:

“Soil erosion on farms dropped sharply in the 1970s with the introduction of “no-till” seed planting, an innovation that also reduced dependence on diesel fuel because fields no longer had to be plowed every spring. Farmers then began conserving water by moving to drip irrigation and by leveling their fields with lasers to minimize wasteful runoff. In the 1990s, GPS equipment was added to tractors, autosteering the machines in straighter paths and telling farmers exactly where they were in the field to within one square meter, allowing precise adjustments in chemical use. Infrared sensors were brought in to detect the greenness of the crop, telling a farmer exactly how much more (or less) nitrogen might be needed as the growing season went forward. To reduce wasteful nitrogen use, equipment was developed that can insert fertilizers into the ground at exactly the depth needed and in perfect rows, only where it will be taken up by the plant roots.”

“These “precision farming” techniques have significantly reduced the environmental footprint of modern agriculture relative to the quantity of food being produced. In 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a review of the “environmental performance of agriculture” in the world’s 30 most advanced industrial countries — those with the most highly capitalized and science-intensive farming systems. The results showed that between 1990 and 2004, food production in these countries continued to increase (by 5 percent in volume), yet adverse environmental impacts were reduced in every category. The land area taken up by farming declined 4 percent, soil erosion from both wind and water fell, gross greenhouse gas emissions from farming declined 3 percent, and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use fell 17 percent. Biodiversity also improved, as increased numbers of crop varieties and livestock breeds came into use.”

Whether you believe organic or conventional farming methods are more sustainable is up to you.  I decided to ask some of my friends what sustainable meant to them.  The following are some of their responses:

• A practice that may be perpetuated without negative impacts or degradation of quality.

• A system that is economically viable, environmentally sensitive and socially acceptable

• Optimal output for minimal input without marginalizing quality.

• Capable of enduring with little change, not only today but for generations to come with little or no effort.

• Has to be profitable- not sustained by an external source of income/ has to be environmentally responsible/has to fit community norms. The community aspect is probably the most difficult to fully define.

• To me it’s a system of livestock production or farming that can be repeated season after season without loss of any kind.

• To remain in existence, able to withstand hardships. If it is business though I think most people think it can survive without mandates or subsidies.

• Essentially, I think of a business that can survive regardless of the state of the outside world.

• The ability something has to endure, viably.

I hope this gives you something to think about.  You may think twice the next time you hear someone mention that one practice is more sustainable than another.  Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and do some research for yourself on the particular subject.  You may be surprised at what you find.

What does sustainable mean to you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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