Is there an agricultural sustainability consensus?


(Part I of II)

What does it really mean to farm sustainably? To be committed to agricultural sustainability?

Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 answers — some of them vigorously in opposition to other answers.

There is, however, agreement that sustainability in agriculture is essential for the planet’s health and future — to our health and future.

In his keynote to the USDA Outlook Forum Feb. 18, Roger Beachy, newly appointed USDA chief scientist and director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, tried to wrap his arms around what “sustainability” really means for agricultural production and research.

His message? We have to “frame the discussion about sustainability around what science teaches us, but also around the part that recognizes the importance of society in how we provide food and sustain the environment.”

Beachy bio

There are some camps who saw the appointment of Beachy as a “win for Big Ag”, because of his research and background in biotechnology. After all, he pioneered plant transgenics and, in 1987, developed the first transgenic food crop, a tomato resistant to virus infection. One columnist even called Beachy “the public face of Monsanto’s research efforts.”

They couldn’t be further from the truth.

Beachy was raised in rural Ohio and Indiana in the Amish and Mennonite faiths (his father, who was raised Amish and left school in eighth grade, actually went back to school and then college after having his four children). And Beachy received his bachelor’s degree at the liberal arts, Mennonite-based Goshen College in Indiana, and has served on the Mennonite Central Committee.

“It was a different kind of upbringing than what most of my scientific colleagues have had,” Beachy said in a 2003 interview with the National Academy of Sciences, “but very much in the rural areas, farming and looking at nature and participating in natural processes.” (Scroll down to listen to Beachy’s interview.)

Here is a man who is uniquely qualified to talk about sustainability. He recognizes the links between farming and values and the environment and food and health. And he understands science.


There is an actual definition of “sustainable agriculture,” Beachy said, outlined in the 1990 farm bill. It starts this way: “.. an integrated system of plants and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, accomplish certain things.”

Beachy said the consensus is also that “sustainable agriculture systems must be productive, they must be profitable, they must enhance the environment and steward both nonrenewable and ecological resources; and they should improve the quality of life of both farmers and society.”

We get into shouting matches, though, when we focus on particular practices as being sustainable gospel, rather than outcomes, he added.

“It is important to keep the focus on the goal and be open-minded about ways to achieve the goal,” Beachy said during the outlook forum.

Next week: Part II. Beyond the definition: Reaching the goal.

In this National Academy of Sciences interview, Roger Beachy recounts how his interest in nature was buoyed by his Amish roots, a motivated teacher, and his father. At Goshen College, he disliked math and physics courses but flourished in a strong research-oriented biology department. Through advanced studies at Michigan State University, the University of Arizona, and Cornell University, Beachy developed a multidisciplinary set of skills and tools that he applied to the study of plant viruses under an NIH research fellowship. (10 minutes)

Listen to more of Beachy’s interview.


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