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  • Writer's pictureTim Hammerich

Defining “Sustainability” in Agriculture

Marketers seem to love the word “sustainable”. They’ve nearly loved all of the meaning right out of the word.

Can you blame them? Who wants to argue against being more sustainable? It is a word that makes it difficult to play devil’s advocate.

The problem becomes, when should we be allowed to use the word? What does sustainability actually mean when it comes to agriculture?

I sat down with Marc Brazeau of the Food and Farm Discussion Lab for the Future of Agriculture Podcast. My question for Marc: “How should we be thinking about sustainability in agriculture?” This served as a precursor for our “Sustainability at Scale” podcast series.

For starters, Marc frames up two basic definitions of agricultural sustainability:

  1. (Less common and more idealistic) The ability to operate a system indefinitely in a steady state.

  2. (More common and more directional in nature) Asking “Are we reducing impacts?” The implication being to work towards getting as close as possible to a steady state system. Or this could be more mitigating our most harmful practices while developing the next technologies to get us closer to steady state.

Marc came to agriculture as a chef through his interest in the food movement. He was inspired by people like Michael Pollan, Will Allen, and Alice Waters, and became passionate about improving food systems.

“I was a very typical Portland chef, and when we opened our restaurant we sourced as much organic, local product as we could given were doing a bistro cafe that was meant to be a neighborhood, everyday kind of place.”

Through his food movement influences, he kept hearing that organic food was better in every way. The yields were higher, organic practices more sustainable and organic farming was more profitable.

This made Marc wonder “why doesn’t every farmer use organic practices?”

He started doing his own research, and found alternative perspectives such as that of Steve Savage and Biofortified. These new perspectives caused him to question his opinions of the impacts of things like monocultures and GMOs.

With a background in research, Marc dug deeper. This evidence-based approach ultimately lead him to starting the Food and Farm Discussion Lab Blog, and fantastic Facebook Forum. These are must-reads for anyone interested in the future of agriculture.

One of Marc’s major “aha” moments, was when he read studies indicating that while organic farming could be superior to conventional on many per-acre metrics, conventional was often superior on a per-unit of output basis.

Yields are a key variable. When you consider that there is a certain amount of demand that must be met regardless of acres, this becomes a very crucial point related to sustainability.

Marc sites the 2012 Tuomisto Meta Analysis comparing European organic and conventional farming practices as very eye-opening for him.

Marc’s curiosity has ultimately lead him to dedicate his career towards using science and evidence to inform food and farm decisions.

I thought he would be the perfect guest on the podcast to help us frame our thinking with regards to sustainability. My basic question to Marc was “as we look at the title of this series ‘sustainability at scale’, how should we be thinking about sustainability?”

“One of the legs has GOT to be ECONOMIC sustainability”

This essential element of sustainability too often gets overlooked. In order for any system to move us closer to a “steady state”, it MUST be economically viable.

Marc went on to list six other important aspects that should be explored in any meaningful conversation about agricultural sustainability:

  1. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions

  2. Nutrient Management and Nutrient Cycle

  3. Soil Health

  4. Water Conservation and Management

  5. Land Use (Deforestation, etc.)

  6. Food Waste

Then Marc emphasized the need to consider SCALE:

“If someone is proposing a reform or an innovation, one of my first questions is ‘Does this apply to a large part of the system?’. For me that’s two big things: one is, it means we are talking about commodity crops or very large per unit impacts on non-commodity crops. People don’t have a great mental model for thinking about scale. So corn in the U.S. is 90M acres, soy 75M acres, forage crops 55M acres, wheat 50M acres, orchard crops (groves and orchards) 5M acres, vegetables 4M acres and the bulk of that is potatoes, sweet corn, lettuce and canning tomatoes. So orchards and vegetables TOTAL are not even 20% of wheat….We could have a big philosophical debate about whether we are growing too much corn and soy or whether we rely too much on commodity crops, [but] that’s what we are growing. So if you’re not dealing with corn, soy, wheat, [and] forage crops, then you’re not really having a serious conversation about sustainability.”

This is just a fraction of the rich information Marc was able to share on the podcast.

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