I care about environmental stewardship on farms because it is one piece of something bigger: sustainability.
We seem to be adding “sustainable” to a lot of things: sustainable wood, sustainable sushi, sustainable ball point pens, sustainable rodent control strategies (not kidding). And then, of course, there’s agricultural sustainability.
Now, agricultural sustainability is a touchy subject. If you like the term, you’re very enthusiastic about it. If you don’t care for it, you’re very enthusiastic about that as well.
These are three common attitudes I’ve encountered when it comes to ag. sustainability:
1) Hallelujah! Let’s start a revolution in agriculture and improve environmental stewardship.
2) Ka-ching. The more consumer demand, the more moola I can make. Sure, I care about the environment but this just makes business sense.
3) Not buyin’ this. Sustainable agriculture? This term is completely pointless. Obviously agriculture is sustainable otherwise we wouldn’t still be doing it.
In a post on the Progressive Farmer website last week, Chris Clayton shared insights from a meeting on a National Research Council report, “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century.” The title of Clayton’s post was “Sustainable Ag Goals Hard to Reach.” He writes:
It was an interesting exercise with people talking about all of the various elements the drive sustainability, along with the understanding that, well, there are a lot of different definitions for sustainability.
Bingo. Definitions of agricultural sustainability are a’plenty. That’s because talking about sustainability inevitably leads to talking about values. What I value is different than what you value. I use the term “agricultural sustainability” all the time, but if you ask me for a definition I’d probably struggle to come up with a definite one.
Sustainability. What does that even mean? What are we sustaining?
We’re sustaining the human population. Even if we tack on “agriculture” before the word, it’s still about us (who are we kidding, it’s always about us). We’re sustaining agriculture to sustain us.
If sustainability is about us, then shouldn’t we have everyone on board? Agricultural sustainability shouldn’t be a source of division.
Clayton ends his meeting recap with this:
I don’t think sustainable agriculture advocates have done a good job of marrying the goals of feeding the world, affordably, and address this laundry list that researchers and academics want to see in the environment and society from producers.
It seems sometimes people not on the sustainable agriculture bandwagon expect those that are to have some Captain Planet-like powers that will save the world. There will never be a perfect solution. I don’t think we can discredit those interested in agricultural sustainability based on the fact that they have not provided everyone else with some foolproof formula.
We can, however, recognize that while we have different values we do share common ground: we are all passionate about agriculture and we want it be a part of our future. It takes personal initiative to set aside any biases you have about sustainable or conventional agriculture in order to focus on this common ground.
As Captain Planet would say, the power is yours.