Not too long ago, my father-in-law asked me what sustainability meant to me. He was noticing how it has become the byword of the day and wondered if there were any standards in agriculture. I am aware of a number of labels that emphasize different aspects of sustainability for farm products, but by its very nature, it is hard to pin down and categorize. Here’s my take.
The difficulty of defining sustainability is precisely because the word implies a system that lasts over time. When it comes to duration of a system, we humans have never come close to constructing a system that matches the efficiency and duration of Nature’s ecological webs. The ecosystems around us have been around and working for a very, very, very long time, and to think we can build systems that ignore the principles we see in the ecosystems around us is pure hubris. Thus even if I break up my definition of sustainability into a number of interconnected aspects, the overall structure and mindset must be tied into and reflect the ecosystem around us. For purposes of conceptualizing the web of sustainability, I like to acknowledge at least six interconnecting hubs: Ecology or environment, local, social, health, humane, and taste.
First to address the failures or lack of these six issues in modern agriculture.
The ecological negatives are easy enough to identify and renounce. Erosion of soil is the most straightforward. Losing topsoil by the billion metric tons a year needs little imagination to understand how eventually such trends will lead to starvation. But most soils, even if kept from erosion, are being depleted of nutrients (particularly, vital trace minerals) and the food we eat is becoming less and less nutritious. The Senate recognized this fact all the way back in 1936, where in document #264 they acknowledged that sick soil leads to sick plant, sick animals and sick people. Pollution is another negative easily identified. Whether it is the manure lagoons from hogs kept in confinement by the hundreds of thousands that sometimes seep into our waterways, or the fertilizer run off that enters streams and eventually into the ocean, creating massive dead zones where oxygen-loving algae make the water inhabitable for fish, we as a nation have a horrible track record of unprecedented destruction of our land and water.
Local frameworks are non-existent in modern agriculture. The utter dependence on the non-renewable source of oil, particularly as we have reached peak-oil, is by definition unsustainable. To grow things in one state, then shipped to another to be processed, then shipped to another state (or even country at times) to be packaged, and then shipped to another state to be distributed to just about anywhere accumulates into a gigantic absurd system that should be addressed at every economic summit, every climate change summit, and even every energy summit. I’ve heard all sorts of figures trying to add up food related use of fossil fuels. But whether you estimate it at 20% or all the way past 50%, this strikes me as the proverbial low-hanging fruit.
Socially, small to medium size farms and farmers have been nearly annihilated.The trend for decades has been to get bigger or get out. To become more and more technologically and fuel dependent, or remain uncompetitive in the market. The social toll on rural communities is evident in their breakdown. Poverty rises and the ensuing social meaninglessness has led to the drug (particularly meth) epidemics of the day.
The health of the population of the richest country in the world is a national embarrassment. Overfed and under nourished. Obesity and diabetics becoming the norm. Not to mention the disastrous effects of chemicals from pesticides directly on our health. As a meat producer, I also consider the health of the animals. When the average life-span of a milking cow dwindles down to about 4 years, and other livestock is kept on antibiotics to keep them alive in the conditions they live in, this not only is inhumane, but their health effects ours when we eat from this food source.
Inhumane treatment of both animals and farm workers. Confined and caged animals speak for themselves. Many of us are inundated with the stories or even pictures of animals living in horrible conditions. But what often is overlooked is that some human has to interact with these animals on some level and work in an environment that values neither the animals nor them. On the side of vegetables, the work conditions for the immigrants that tend our crops are often inhumane as well.
Taste, at first glance, may not seem important enough an issue to be mentioned alongside these others, but as I’ve tried to express in other posts, the enjoyment of the fruits of our labor is essential in its meaning. When customers tell us stories of how they can’t believe how much better our meat tastes than the conventional options, their enjoyment is the best and most encouraging compliment. Enjoyment is the true completion of a meaningful activity, and without it we would not continue to do what we do over a sustained period of time.
Like usual my post has gotten much too long and I will have to address the antidotes and alternatives of sustainable agriculture in another post.