John Phipps: Sustainable Agriculture Movements Often Miss the Mark

04:14PM Mar 05, 2020
Hands and soil
The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the STAR program developed in Illinois are two examples of how agriculture is raising the bar on measuring sustainability.
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While it’s always been a buzzword, sustainability has grown into a movement. It pervades the food chain, but also energy, urban development, and even clothing. Usually the term refers to a set of standards, typically vague.

Agriculture is into “sustainable” now, as well. Driven by consumers who have demonstrated the term resonates with them, retailers are sending strong signals down our value chains to come up with a way to get that label on their product. The result is a small side industry of sustainability advisers and innovators.

The beef industry has a good model: The US Roundtable For Sustainable Beef. It is one of the more thorough I have seen because it includes more of the entire value chain than most other industry plans. It is a remarkable step in the right direction, even though its specifics and metrics still need full details, which are the hardest part of all. For example, one metric for cow-calf producers is to have a Grazing Management Plan, but I’ve seen several versions of those from researchers and universities.

In the same way other organizations are working to be able meet various other sustainability standards. All of these efforts are worthwhile, but most are reaching a point where enough planning has been done and actual farming practices have to be affected by those goals. One good example of the detail needed for measurable crop farmer actions to promote sustainability is the STAR program developed in Illinois by Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Its adoption has been slow as is typical for voluntary programs of this nature, but it does list explicit practices to meet sustainable standards.

The odd thing is all of these strategies I have seen, and support, tiptoe around the issue of climate change. There are discussions about greenhouse gas emissions, which are de facto admissions of man-caused climate change, but most statements are meticulously drafted to avoid the dreaded “C” words.  It appears that proponents of sustainable actions reserve the right to believe that whole idea is based on nonsense, even while making considerable efforts to mitigate climate change. As hypocrisy goes these days, this is fairly trivial and not worth fussing over. Besides, I applaud any movement toward rational action on climate change.

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