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Though society’s concerns about sustainability are taking a back seat to the economic recession, sustainability will remain an important issue, says agricultural economist Dr. Des O’Rourke.

As the world’s population has grown over the years, concerns about a depletion of resources and global warming have increased. Many believe that society must make sacrifices in the form of more taxes and more regulations to prevent future calamity. However, the current global recession has prompted them to question whether people should be asked to make more sacrifices at a time when they are losing their jobs and their homes and state governments are mired in debt.

But, the push for greater sustainability will not go away, O’Rourke said. "It’s something agriculture needs to be prepared to deal with right now."

Sustainable agriculture has a triple bottom line of social responsibility, economic profit, and environmental health, but O’Rourke said there is no single definition of sustainability.

The Bruntland Commission (formally the World Commission on Environment and Development) defines sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In the 1990 U.S. Farm Bill, it was defined as "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base on which the agricultural economy depends
  • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations, and
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

    More recently, the Leonardo Academy, a nonprofit organization that develops practical solutions to environmental and energy problems, has been developing a definition that would be accepted by the American National Standards Institute. A draft indicated that the academy’s vision of sustainable agriculture was based on small farmers meeting organic-plus standards and growing food for the local market, O’Rourke said.

    In contrast, the Keystone Center’s definition would allow growers to find the best ways to achieve sustainability through a full range of agricultural technology choices.

    There’s agreement among those defining sustainability that:

  • Use of water and energy should be minimized because that saves money and resources and is more efficient
  • Soil should be managed to sustain its fertility from generation to generation
  • Chemical use should be reduced
  • Water should be as clean when it leaves the farm as when it reached it

    But areas of disagreement are:

  • Whether each local food-producing district must be self-sustaining
  • Whether it makes sense to importing inputs like potash from Chile
  • Whether the United States has an obligation to feed the hungry around the world
  • What the role of nonrenewable fossil fuels should be
  • Whether agriculture must be organic to be sustainable
  • What the role will be of new technologies, such as genetically modified organisms and cloning

    "Activist groups are jockeying for position," O’Rourke said. "I think farmers really need to be able to separate the good economics from the bad economics on some of these proposals and the good practices from the bad."

    Scientists

    It will be important for agriculture to engage the best scientists to study these proposals to avoid being saddled with definitions that it can’t live with, he added.

    In some cases, the goals of producers and environmentalists are complementary (for example, where a grower gets higher prices for using sustainable practices). But it’s more difficult to get agreement where one goal conflicts with another (for example, where the need for riparian buffers reduces the farmed land base, resulting in less income).

    O’Rourke said the fruit industry needs to begin discussions with major retailers, such as Wal-Mart. In the United Kingdom, J. Sainsbury PLC is demanding sustainable foods from its suppliers.

    The industry should challenge "silly concepts" such as food miles, air miles, and zero chemicals that retailers are asking for even though they have no scientific basis, he said. "It’s really important to persuade retailers and governments to set reasonable standards for sustainable agriculture. There needs to be one globally agreed, science-based standard for sustainability. If it’s just Washington, it’s not going to fly. If it’s just New Zealand, it’s not going to fly."

    The economic slowdown gives agriculture time to prepare for sustainability regulations, he reiterated, but the issue will come back.

    "We all need to work for a sustainable planet," he added. "We do need sustainable agriculture, but we need realistic goals; the best science at our disposal; reason, not emotion; awareness of inherent conflicts and tradeoffs; and a willingness to learn as we go."