Three keys to achieving sustainable agriculture


(Part II of II)

Have you ever tried to sit on a three-legged stool that had one leg shorter than the other two, or was missing a leg? It’s a balancing act that’s not very easy and you can’t do it for very long.

So it is with working toward sustainable agriculture. You can’t focus on the one leg of economic sustainability and ignore the other legs of environmental sustainability and social sustainability.

Likewise, you can’t build up only the social sustainability leg, or the environmental sustainability leg, because you’ll wobble on the economic sustainability leg — and you can’t do it for very long.

Last week’s column shared insight from Roger Beachy, newly appointed USDA chief scientist and director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. In his remarks to the USDA Outlook Forum Feb. 18, he emphasized that 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.”

Labels hurt

The bad thing is that when many farmers hear the phrase, “sustainable agriculture,” they think only of Wendell Berry or farm marketers or back-to-the-landers. I’m not sure that they think of themselves.

And the same goes on the other end. I doubt organic farmers see “conventional farmers” or “traditional farmers” as part of “sustainable agriculture.”

Enough with the labels! Look yourself in the mirror and say, “I am a sustainable farmer,” and then go out and do your thing.

We need science

Beachy, who was raised in the Mennonite church in Ohio and Indiana, says he became a scientist because one of his goals was to develop disease-resistant crops that didn’t need a chemical treatment.

“When that solution came through biotechnology, I considered it a sustainable outcome. Others define ‘sustainability’ as not involving biotechnology. We disagree.”

Sustainable agriculture is not just low tech. We need science and we need new tools to farm sustainably. I just read about a heat treatment for tomato seed that wards off bacterial canker disease. A certified organic grower in New Jersey loves it and wishes the treatment was available in other crops, like peppers.

Sustainability is about production as well as conservation and protecting natural resources.

New wind

In his February remarks, Beachy cited a report from the National Research Council, and funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy — not the USDA. The report, New Biology for the 21st Century, says a new biology approach is needed to find solutions to four key societal needs: “sustainable food production, ecosystem restoration, optimized biofuel production and improvement in human health.”

Hello? Sounds like agriculture fits into all of the above. Beachy, the scientist, interprets it this way: “The new biology foreshadows a time of momentous change in agriculture sciences.”

What excites Beachy — and me — is that this new wind blowing through the scientific community is emerging at the same time as agriculture — food and farming — is making its way into more dinner table conversations.

“It is clear that we stand at a teachable moment in America where agriculture is again recognized as woven into the fabric of American culture,” Beachy said last month.

Farmers have to stop repeating the phrase, “we feed the world,” and start thinking about what it really means. It’s a huge responsibility, and it can be done long-term, but only if we do it sustainably. One farmer at a time. On all legs.


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  1. Sorry if it was not clear. In my opinion, for any agricultural practice to be sustainable, it has to be 1) economically practical (sure, we can install all the environmental safeguards and regulations we want, but if a farmer can’t make money, all is for naught); 2) environmentally sustainable; and 3) accepted by society (socially sustainable). You can’t focus on one and ignore the other two.

  2. Nice piece, Susan. I heard Beachy give a similar talk at the Missouri Governor’s Conf. on Ag. Would be good for many in ag to hear this speech.


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