The myth of sustainabilityMay 2, 2016
What is sustainability to you?
If you are like most of the people I interviewed, your first response is a lost gaze to the ceiling. After interviewing professors, college students, and really anyone who would take the time to talk to me, most of the answers began to have a similar theme. Fumbling through a few initial thoughts, interviewees all seemed to think sustainability was only about the environment.
Even I had to reference google to help clear up some of my own confusion about sustainability. Just one walk down an aisle at the grocery store and you are flooded with different labels claiming that their product is sustainably sourced, sustainably raised, or all natural. It seems to be a vague buzz word that is slapped onto any label to make people feel better about the sodium-packed bag of chips they are about to purchase. After all, the calories don’t really count if they are sustainable calories, right?
Let’s not forget how the term sustainability has also migrated into other areas such as medicines, clothing, and even technology. If I wasn’t already confused, walking into Best Buy and seeing a laptop labeled “sustainable” sure does make things even murkier. Clearly, this word is used plenty, but rarely is it explained.
It was finally time to make sense of this confusing term- so that’ exactly what I did. After interviewing more people about sustainability and consulting resources online I wanted to have an answer to the question: What is sustainability to you? To me, sustainability is considering the impact of three different factors: environmental, economic, and societal. Sustainability is finding a long-term solution while keeping those three factors balanced. Often times this is referred to as the triple bottom line including people, profit, and land. Most people think of the environment right off the bat while describing sustainability, but the other two aspects can easily slip in between the cracks. While the environment is extremely important, without keeping economic and societal factors in check there cannot be long-term sustainability. All three aspects are equally important. Imagine a situation where we took perfect care of the environment, but took little time to consider needs of people. Yes, the soil would be rich and trees beautiful, but without providing healthcare, education, or social companionship to people they will not be able to enjoy the environment. A similar scenario can be painted if we only focused on any of the three factors. The baseline is, we need all three.
Because most of the sustainability conversation seems to center itself on food, naturally people begin to wonder if our agricultural system today is sustainable or not. As an agricultural science major and farmer’s daughter, my first response to this question is a simple yes. 97% of all farms in the United States are family owned. After defining sustainability to me, this fact alone gives me the confidence to say agriculture is sustainable based on the three earlier mentioned factors.
When a farm is family owned, the three factors of sustainability are already accounted for usually without farmers even realizing it. A top priority on a family farm is passing the farm down to the next generation. Because of this, family farms are more likely to adopt new strategies to protect the environment. The goal of a family farmer is to leave the land in better shape than when it was originally acquired. There is no better form of accountability for this than knowing that you are taking care of the land to pass on to your own children. On my own family farm we have implemented techniques such as no-till and adding buffer strips to fields in order to decrease soil erosion. My family is no different than other family farmers with their desire to improve the environment for future generations.
By protecting the ground and investing more into the environment, the land will be more productive resulting in higher yields and improved profits for farmers. Bam! Economic sustainability is already accounted for. Adding technology which helps the environment can ultimately save farmers money. For example, with the development of biotechnology and GMO seeds farmers have the ability to decrease water usage. By using less water and ultimately less resources, farmers’ profits can increase while also benefiting the environment.
A huge aspect of sustainable agriculture is the societal impact. Worldwide about one in nine people go hungry. With an ever-expanding population (9.7 billion by 2050), farmers have a huge responsibility to produce as much food as possible to feed our growing world. With the combination of new seed technology and better land management practices, farmers are increasing production levels. While world hunger cannot be solved easily or overnight, farmers are doing their part by increasing food production while doing so as efficiently and sustainably as possible.
Some may argue that agriculture has made a lot of progress towards sustainability, but it isn’t quite there. I would have to disagree with this. No industry at any point can be 100% sustainable. There will always be new challenges to face and new innovative ideas to overcome these challenges. The agriculture industry is sustainable because people within the industry are constantly working towards new solutions to make the industry more sustainable whether that might be with new soil conservation methods, drought-resistant seeds, or developing production methods to increase yields. Family farms help keep agriculture more sustainable and push farmers to strive for better practices. Agriculture is constantly growing and changing for the better. True sustainability, not just those empty store labels, is never becoming complacent while striving to find a balance between environmental, economic, and societal factors. My initial questions about sustainability have been answered and knowing the majority of the farms in the US are family owned, like the farm I grew up on, makes me rest easy at night. Family farms help keep US agriculture sustainable and, more importantly, my four-year-old nephew thinks farming with his family is awesome!
Miranda Biddle ’16