I wish I had a nickel for every time I was asked, often in a challenging manner, “what do you mean by sustainable?”
SFA certainly doesn’t shy away from the word sustainable, but we often have to deal with fallout from having such a polarizing word in our name. I think one of the best definitions is the one adopted by USDA in the 1990 Farm Bill:
The term sustainable agriculture means 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 upon 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.”
(Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603)
That’s a pretty good definition, but the word has been used and abused to the point where it’s nearly impossible to pin someone down on their interpretation of its meaning. Most large industries and agriculture companies seem to use a definition along the lines of, “Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
With that as a definition, there are few areas in life where the capacity exists to be truly sustainable. Every carload of coal mined out of the ground and used for fuel today is “compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” for coal. Production of iPhones using Rare Earth Elements (REE) is rapidly compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own iPhone needs. If our definition of sustainability includes future access to currently utilized resources, then everything we do is unsustainable.
This distorted view focuses on a scarcity mentality, meaning whatever we use today is unavailable for tomorrow. For many industries, there is a finite, fixed amount of resources available; if we deplete a resource, we are preventing future generations from accessing it and force them to be unsustainable.
In agriculture, we have the capacity to turn that paradigm on its ear. The world is not a fixed set of resources, and the earth is nowhere near full. Unlike mining coal or rare earth minerals for iPhones, we can regenerate our farming systems to create more resources for all.
Want to hear more? Catch the rest of the story at the National Bison Association conference on June 20 in Elk River. I’ll be the keynote speaker, and I’m honored to be joined by some leading innovators in our movement, including Gabe Brown. The program includes a trip to Snake River Farm, and a beef/bison side-by-side carcass evaluation. You can learn more about the conference, including the full agenda, at the National Bison Association website.