Sustainability is a word we’ve been hearing a lot about lately and, most of the time, it’s made in reference to organic agriculture. Sustainability is defined as the ability to continue or carry on. There is also a definition in the dictionary that says "to supply with food, drink, and other necessities of life." There are no references made to the environment or organic agriculture. Ironically, organic agriculture is using the word to describe the difference between organic and conventional agriculture.
A few weeks ago, we reported on a presentation Michael Pollan was going to give at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. It raised the hackles of many beef producers who attended that university. What was initially intended to be an individual presentation by Pollan was turned into a panel discussion about our nation’s agriculture system and whether or not it is sustainable. It turns out, one of Pollan’s favorite words is monoculture.
Obviously, Pollan was a little perturbed about not having his monoculture presentation. In his opening comments, he made reference to the fact that he was originally to have had the stage to himself and that changed because of the bullying of a university donor. Instead, he claimed his presentation was compromised and he felt that academic freedom was threatened.
The university moderator asked the panel about their definition of sustainability. Pollan defined modern agriculture as not sustainable due to its dependence on fossil fuels. He said, by his own calculations, that it takes 26 ounces of oil to produce the double quarter-pound cheeseburger served at McDonald’s restaurants.
Dr. Gary Smith from Colorado State University was also on the panel. He said that his idea of sustainability is the ability to produce food and nourishment for the foreseeable future. He also pointed out that agriculture uses only 8 percent of the fossil fuels consumed in the U.S.. He also explained that he feels that agriculture is getting a bum rap in the global warming debate.
Myra Goodman, a large-scale organic farmer from Salinas, CA, said she believed that sustainability evolved around the goal of protecting and preserving resources. Her goal was to reduce their use of synthetic inputs and to recycle as much as they could
Cheap food became a real bone of contention during the discussion. Smith says that we absolutely have to produce abundant, affordable food for the world. Pollan seems to believe that cheap food is a major part of our nation’s problems with health issues. Apparently, personal responsibility doesn’t enter into his debate. He also claims that we already produce enough food for 11 billion people, far surpassing a forecast global population of 9.5 billion people. He claims that we are already over-producing and selling food below the cost of production. However, Pollan says it’s a problem of government, while I would suggest that it is more a function of current global economics.
While these three people all have a different idea of what sustainable agriculture is, most consumers don’t know or care. Smith made reference to a consumer survey which asked, "Do you practice sustainability when you purchase food items?" Sixty percent didn’t know what sustainability meant.
I would have to say that economic sustainability is the greatest threat to agriculture. Mother Nature often shows her ability to hamper the economics of agriculture. I think most people in the business understand and accept her impacts. So, instead, perhaps the greatest threat to sustainability in animal agriculture is society itself. The Humane Society of the United States has had a great impact in recent years, using politics and emotional pleas to voters to influence animal agriculture. Politics are a threat to agriculture.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is another huge threat, not just to agriculture, but industry in general. New rules are coming out every day on items like feedlot dust, manure management, water usage, runoff, and the use of agricultural chemicals. The EPA has a heavy hand in what anyone can do in this country. They have become a punitive organization through very thin interpretations of what congressional laws mean.
Agriculture by itself is sustainable and, for the most part, has been for thousands of years. I expect it will be for thousands of years to come. We just need to watch out for the activist groups and government if we want to maintain a healthy ag environment. — PETE CROW