Monday, August 24, 2009

The Journey Towards Sustainability

Probably the most often asked question I get about sustainable agriculture is “what is it?” The questioners, usually prepared to defend their approach to agriculture, are often surprised to hear my answer. First I believe that most farmers have the desire to be sustainable; that is they wish to be able to continue what they are doing indefinitely. To do so indefinitely means that sustainability needs to be exemplified not only environmentally, but also in terms of productivity, economically, and socially in terms of health and well-being of the farmers and their communities. Further, sustainability in agriculture is better described as a journey than a destination. No one can be sure what practices will be sustainable in the long run. However, there are concepts that need to be addressed.

Sustainable agriculture begins with a set of values that include such things as productive soil, clean water, a reasonable income, healthy lifestyle, nutritious food, a diverse environment, and an appreciation of biological systems, community, and future generations. The journey to sustainability is determined to increase the positive impacts to these values and decrease the negatives.

Now lets get down to the nitty gritty! What about chemicals? All sustainable production is not chemical free nor is all chemical free production sustainable. Chemical use in excess is clearly not sustainable as it can have negative impacts to water, wildlife, human healthy, and profitability. Judicious use of production chemicals may or may not be sustainable in that we don’t know the long-term effects. I thijnk it would be fair to say that the journey toward sustainability would include a reduction of chemical use over time through intensive management and the substitution of biological systems for chemicals. Given the knowledge to accomplish this I find that most farmers can embrace this concept.

What about marketing? From a sustainability standpoint, marketing must increase the bottom line to a point that the farmer receives a reasonable income. Generally this means that the farmer would move towards systems that increase his/her market share from the current 10% or less to a share that matches production capability with standard of living requirements. This can include producing for a new or niche market and cooperative marketing to face-to-face sales to consumers.

Finally let’s consider the human factor. Sustainable agriculture has a high regard for the health and happiness of the farmer, the health of the consumer, the viability of passing a farming operation to the next generation, and the impact to the community. These values set the parameters as to how food is produced and the quality of that food. Probably the first step in the journey towards sustainability in this area is the recognition that we are producing food as opposed to commodities. Even further we might consider that we are producing human nutrition.

In conclusion I would reiterate that the nature of sustainable agriculture is a journey and as such no onehas yet arrived at the destination or the complete and comprehensive definition. If you share any or all of the values suggested in this article and are working toward them, you are sustainable agriculture. NSAS is a community of producers, consumers, vendors, and researchers working together to promote the values of sustainable agriculture!

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