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The “S”-Word: What Does Sustainable Mean?

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

By Mayhah Suri

Mountains behind a field (Edwin Remsberg).

When I set out to answer this question, I quickly realized that defining sustainability has more to do with the values of the speaker than any objective definition. Despite no clear-cut answer, or maybe because of that, talking about sustainability can elicit cheers or jeers — and it always evokes passion, especially in an agricultural context.

In broad terms, the dictionary definition states something is sustainable if it can be maintained for a long period of time. Talking about sustainability means talking about the future.

To many people, agriculture has sustainability built right into it. Working the land too hard can be disastrous for future harvests. Working the land too little can lead to lowered profits, and more broadly, not enough food in the world. The balance between utilizing natural resources and protecting them for future use is an issue farmers think about every day. Farmers must always plan for the future – what will my fields look like next year? In ten years? What shape will my business be in when it passes to the next generation? As a result, producers can feel insulted by the assessment that modern agriculture is unsustainable because planning for the future is critical to running a successful farm business. Farmers have sustained their businesses, and sustained the world, for centuries.

But when people call agriculture unsustainable, they are often referring to specific practices, not agriculture as a whole. They are talking about the costs, to farmers and non-farmers alike, of continuing the resource-intensive, high-impact system we have today. Though modern agriculture has improved the quality of life for people all over the world in many ways, it is important to recognize that it has had negative impacts on the environment and surrounding communities, including pollution, erosion, potential health risks, and degraded land. Of course, farmers are aware of these effects—ask any farmer if he or she thinks using up all our resources is a good idea, and you would be hard-pressed to hear a “yes.” Nobody wants to farm unhealthy land, but some modern agricultural practices can devastate natural resources over time.

But if agriculture is unsustainable, what is sustainable? A 1987 United Nations report was one of the first times the word sustainable was used to mean something bigger than simply lasting a long time. The report said that something should be considered sustainable if it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, a sustainable practice is one that provides the best outcomes for the present while minimizing future harm.

The 1990 Farm Bill describes sustainable agriculture as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices which:

· satisfies human food and fiber needs

· enhances the natural resources the agricultural economy depends on

· efficiently uses nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources

· integrates natural biological cycles and controls when possible

· maintains the profitability of farms

· enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

The “sustainable agriculture” movement is focused on what the agricultural system, including farmers, agribusinesses, related industries, government policies, and consumers, can do to promote practices which reduce or eliminate the impacts agriculture has on health and natural resources. This includes new technologies, economic models, soil management practices, and other innovations to keep agriculture productive while protecting the resources future generations will need.

Conventional farming and organic farming are often seen as polar opposites in this conversation but sustainability may not need to be so black and white. Some widely-used practices actually overlap, like low till, cover crops, and crop rotations. Whether they are done by an organic farmer on a small plot or a conventional farmer on hundreds of acres, any practices that reduce soil erosion, water pollution, and harm to wildlife are making that farm more sustainable.

The key is making sure these practices are as productive and profitable as the current system (if not more so) because a hungrier world is certainly not a more sustainable one by any definition of the term.

When the name-calling and misinformation are put aside, it becomes clear that no matter where you land on the “s”-word debate, the people engaged in this conversation want the same things: a well-fed, healthy planet for generations to come. More than any other industry, farmers understand the connection between natural resources and the survival of humankind. Agriculture has sustained itself for centuries and now the future of agriculture will be crucial in sustaining the well-being of the planet.

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