Top of Mind: A Sustainable Struggle

September 5, 2012 07:04 PM

I admit I struggle with the word "sustainability." In fact, as a journalist, I hold a reverent disdain for the noun; it’s a big, long, plastic word that has varying definitions, depending on whom you ask.

At a recent farm meeting, the moderator asked the audience to define "sustainable agriculture." The participants had a myriad of responses: one producer said "sustainable" meant organic; another explained it as simply being kinder to the land; yet another participant described sustainable agriculture as survival. One producer said: "When I hear the word ‘sustainable,’ it makes me think I’m doing just enough to hang on, just enough to keep the bank happy so they won’t foreclose."

Agriculture is in a period of accelerating change as we redefine the way farm businesses operate and their role and purpose in society, not to mention what people expect of farmers and their relationships with food companies and brands. So as we attempt to articulate what agriculture is doing to feed the world, we’re scrambling to find words to keep up. Everyone involved in agriculture—me included—needs to get past trying to define sustainability. We must accept that contributing to the food supply is not enough, that if the soil, air and water used to produce food is damaged, good luck feeding anyone. That’s the idea, anyway, behind sustainability. It’s about making sure all our resources are not depleted or permanently damaged so we can farm into the future.

Sustainability makes good business sense, too. Practices aimed at resource efficiency at the farm level have paid dividends for Dave Long of California, who has seen tangible benefits such as 40% less fuel usage per day. See how Long and other farmers, as well as companies in the ag and food industry, are addressing sustainability today.

Sustainable Drought. It’s hard to think about sustainability with so many producers still suffering from drought. Yet there might be a kernel of knowledge to be gained from this tough summer. For some time, sustainability experts have been forecasting a rise in food prices. They claim prices have been too low for too long and this has contributed to food companies not making sustainability a priority. If companies had to pay $15 a bushel of wheat instead of $9.50 today, operations managers would make darn sure there was no wasted flour in the manufacturing process. As unfortunate as the drought has been for crop and livestock producers, it might be the wake-up call the food industry needs to take sustainability more seriously.

Good luck during harvest, and my thoughts are with those who will not have a crop to reap this year.

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