Sustainability – what is it, really?
(I posted this about three years ago, but recent events have caused me to revisit it.)
An exchange that took place on Facebook one election day left me pondering a few things.
After urging Facebook friends to do their homework and vote for candidates that are pro-Ag, a comment appeared almost immediately correcting me. Pro agriCULTURE my friend insisted, not agribusiness. I certainly understand his concerns about big money special interests influencing legislators and legislation, but we still have to be careful about drawing too many boundaries and dividing ag up into powerless fiefdoms.
Much of the divisive rhetoric within the agriculture community stems from some overused, misunderstood and misinterpreted catch phrases that are often used to gain the “moral high ground” for those who favor a particular methodology or discipline. These terms most often defy definition, so they can be manipulated to support anything that anyone wants, thereby reducing them to being virtually meaningless.
Take for instance “sustainability,” one of the most ubiquitously amorphous aphorisms. Recently we shot some video with a family that had been farming the same area for about 9 generations.
To me, anyone who’s been successful for that long deserves the sustainable appellation. However, since their operation produces large numbers of animals in confinement, they are instead a “factory farm” in the eyes of those who make such pronouncements. They are decent, God-fearing people who are modestly successful from a production standpoint, but place a premium on quality of family and community. Their state-of-the-art facility is immaculate, their livestock are healthy and well cared for and they productively employ not only family members but neighbors as well. Waste from their facilities has turned the surrounding cropland into black gold, producing record yields with little or no added chemical fertilizer. It’s a model of efficiency and stewardship that should be celebrated, not castigated. Yet, they do not receive the family farm mantle they deserve. That’s reserved for production models that more closely resemble farms of the 1940′s; quaint, picturesque, earthy. In short, romantic as opposed to realistic, profitable and efficient.
Agribusiness is another one that I guess I don’t properly comprehend. My local feed mill or co-op are, to me, agribusinesses because they do business with farmers and ranchers. Isn’t that agribusiness? Apparently not. Agribusinesses are those faceless corporate giants that mercilessly maraud and pillage the rural landscape, running honest farmers out of business with their genetically modified, patented seeds and products. You know, the guys they talk about in the movie Food, Inc. Well, as I asked my Facebook friend, where do you draw the line? Is my small, local co-op OK, even though they sell products manufactured by the corporate black hats? Should we condemn GMO’s even though the negative notions surrounding them are more conjecture than science? How about those third-world countries that would have no agriculture if forced to use conventional seeds as opposed to GMOs? I just don’t think the answers are as black-and-white as some would like them to be.
I’m not normally a huge fan of the Los Angeles Times, but a story resonated with me. I puzzled over the title, “the facts about food and farming.” But, after reading it I found I agreed more than disagreed with author/chef Russ Parsons, and I encourage you to read it and decide for yourself. Parsons states what I have always felt, that the truth is somewhere in the middle between the “hard-line aggies” and the “agricultural reformers.” In the final analysis, Parsons says “Beware the law of unintended consequences. Developing tasteless fruits and vegetables was not the goal of the last Green Revolution; it was a side effect of a system designed to eliminate hunger by providing plentiful, inexpensive food, but that also ended up rewarding quantity over quality. We should always keep in mind that when we’re dreaming of a system that focuses on the reverse, we run the risk of creating something far worse than strawberries that bounce.”
So, rather than pointing fingers and hurling epithets at each other, should we not be arming ourselves to do battle with the legion of forces that seek to tell us how to care for our livestock and plant our crops? We must avoid attitudes that divide or weaken us. We don’t want to find ourselves in the situation described by the late cartoonist/philosopher Walt Kelly when he quipped “we have met the enemy and he is us!”