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What is sustainable anyway?

By Leslie Ballentine, Farming and food commentator

The concept of sustainability has raised a flurry of definitions, expectations and actions in recent years. The difficulty is that the definition is often determined by whoever does the defining. “Sustainable agriculture” has been a long time tenet of food producers. Retailers and foodies and special interest groups of all strips are now attaching new attributes to “sustainable food”. The result, unfortunately, is that “sustainable agriculture” doesn’t always mesh with “sustainable food”.

Regardless of how or who defines it, sustainable agriculture is intended to:

  • Satisfy human food and fibre needs 
  • Make the most efficient use of both non-renewable resources and on-farm resources- and where appropriate, integrate natural biological cycles and controls. 
  • Sustain the economic viability of farms and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

The intentions are good but, in my opinion, the objectives remain somewhat squishy. 

When it comes to food, “sustainability” has become a buzz word often used by advocates to promote a particular foodstyle and even a lifestyle.

For example, “Sustainable Living” is generally considered to include organic food. But if organic food production was sustainable, farmers wouldn’t have abandoned it in the first place. In my mind, if organic production (because of the higher cost and lower output) can only feed a portion of the world then it fails the test. Don’t get me wrong, it has its place, and its market, but not to feed the world. 

“Local food” is becoming another measure of food sustainability. Studies are starting to show that while local food (however you define local) is not necessarily more environmentally friendly, it is proving to be economically sustainable. Yet I still see imported oranges in my grocery store. And I think that is a good thing from a nutritional and food distribution point-of-view.

“Sustainable Living” also implies food produced on “small” farms and is even associated with a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Meat, milk and eggs are not sustainable we are told, so must be reduced or eliminated from our diets. Yet, meat, milk and eggs (and leather and wool) have been part of the human world for millennia. Sounds pretty sustainable to me.

I’m all for freedom of choice but I draw the line when advocates misrepresent  facts and ignore others altogether. I do agree that in general, First World people eat more than we should in ways that we shouldn’t.  But I don’t foresee the end of the fast food burger, imported food or high output farming. The challenge of course is how to marry “sustainable agriculture” with “sustainable living”.

So, what’s your take on “sustainable”?

Until the next BLOG.


Posted by OFAC on February 23rd, 2011 :: Filed under Consumers,Feeding the world,Organics
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3 Responses to “What is sustainable anyway?”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by RonEade and schaeffersont, Ontario Farm Animal . Ontario Farm Animal said: New post: What is sustainable anyway? [...]

  2. Fairbs
    February 25th, 2011

    Sustainable farming is creating a system that “produces soil” not allowing oxygen into it. This system must produce 120 percent returns, 110 percent goes to building the system and 10 percent we harvest from, whatever the soil gives us, that is sustainable, anything else is fairy dust, every farm i looked at on relies heavily on fossil fuels in every way, there oozing in crude.(do you personally believe in peak oil, if not burn it like its not gonna run out) If you are a good “ethical” farmer trapped in industrialized agriculture, please look beyond viterra, monsanto and cargile, look to your grandchildren and there grandchildren how will they produce food and who will teach them, if there is no oil, trees or top soil left ie desertification, what will the young have to inherit, just debt, sweet bring on the middle east(guess what happens when you cut-down all the vegetation, through wars and bad farming practices)

  3. Rob Wallbridge
    March 1st, 2011

    Farmers did not “abandon” organic farming because it was not sustainable — in fact, organic is now the fastest growing sector precisely because it is MORE sustainable (from an economic, environmental, and social perspective) than the alternative — the research is there to prove it, for those who care to look beyond the propaganda. Simply put, organic farming fell out of the mainstream because the machinery of war was re-tasked to replace human and animal energy with petroleum energy, and natural inputs with cheap petro-chemicals, with massive externalized costs that we are just beginning to grasp. If you reduce things to the lowest common denominator of calories in versus calories out, modern agriculture is grossly inefficient. Meanwhile, the technology of organic agriculture has continued to develop, despite an almost complete lack of public investment. Look at studies from the UN and the IAASTD; organic farming techniques offer the greatest promise for feeding the world into the future — a century from now, the energy intensive methods of “high output” farming will be seen as a temporary blip facilitated by the perceived abundance of petroleum energy. Considering that the present system has only been developing for about 50 years, the fact that organic systems have been part of the human world for millenia sounds pretty sustainable to me!

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