Sara Hessenflow Harper
Sara is the Director of Sustainability & Supply-Chain Solutions for Vela Environmental, a division of Kennedy and Coe, LLC where she leads the firm's Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) On-Demand Services. This blog explores the topic of agricultural sustainability. Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAg. Views expressed are solely those of Sara Harper.
A New Perspective on Sustainable Agriculture
Oct 13, 2011
Hello and welcome to a blog designed to explore the issue of sustainable agriculture from a pragmatic perspective.
I have worked at the intersection of agricultural and environmental policy for more than ten years now. (You can check out my background by clicking here.) Never have I encountered someone who thinks that agriculture should be conducted in an unsustainable way. Whether you care about the agricultural industry as a way of life and livelihood for your family – or you care about our ability to have continued access to a safe, abundant and affordable food supply, people across the political spectrum want a food system that can meet our needs now without compromising those of future generations. Yet, if you mention the term "sustainable agriculture" there is often an immediate dividing up into camps with each side doubting the good intent of the other toward meeting this common goal.
I have had the unique experience of being able to work both for a conservative U.S. Senator on ag and environmental policy as well as within a major national environmental organization on this topic. Much of my work has focused on trying to build bridges and encourage select, strategic partnerships between two communities that often view each other with deep suspicion (to put it politely).
I have seen time and again how environmental policy debates and discussions end in a stalemate because environmentalists often let the perfect the enemy of the good and those suspicious of environmentalists use this strategic flaw as a reason to disengage – or worse, deny that there are real environmental problems at times.
It is this process that has turned concepts like sustainability into a partisan or ideologically divisive term rather than what it really is: an aspiration that most all of us share but disagree at times, on how to get there.
What is refreshing, and often under-reported, is that there is a growing trend -- driven largely by the fact that there will be 3 billion more people to feed within the next 40 years, to both expand the definition of what it means to be a sustainable agricultural producer to include the need to feed all these people without damaging our planet and a willingness on the part of some environmental groups to re-consider the value of things like efficiency and genetically-enhanced seeds, for example.
As a result of the coming global population bulge, food retailers and processors are increasingly studying how best to source the products they sell as a means of making sure they have access to a secure and reliable supply chain in the future and as a means of meeting increasing consumer interest in how and where their food is grown. (For a great overview of "green shopper" trends, check out the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Deloitte report by clicking here.)
This is a private market trend that has the potential to re-shape much of the agricultural sector. Depending on how sustainability is defined and measured – and how widely these new metrics get adopted, things like how efficiently your crop used nitrogen fertilizer could become as important of a metric as how much moisture is in your corn when it is time to make the sale.
I started this blog because the topic of agricultural sustainability is both fascinating and will likely have a large impact on an industry I love. I’m hoping this can be a forum for sharing information on emerging trends, discussing what it means to broaden the sustainable agriculture definition and busting some myths along the way.
I’m not claiming to be completely impartial, but I will always strive to tie my assertions to science and the direct experience of the many amazing farmers I’m privileged to work with. I’m looking forward to your comments and a great, ongoing discussion!