Who Defines What It Means To Be Sustainable?

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One of the new buzzwords in agriculture today is “sustainable.” It has taken on a whole gamut of meanings for different people both inside the industry and outside the industry. But the problem is that no single, agreed-upon definition exists.

The etymology of the word can be traced back to as early as the 1600s and includes the meanings “bearable,” “defensible” and “capable of being continued at a certain level.” These terms get us closer to a common language.

The words “sustainable agriculture” have often had a negative connotation for the majority of farmers and ranchers, especially third generation or more producers. If you ask most farmers or ranchers or livestock producers today if their operation is sustainable, they’ll look you in the eye and tell you what generation farmer they are and how long they’ve been on their land. Often it is multiple decades. With decades under their belts, those same producers will ask if they weren’t sustainable, how could their operations have survived multiple generations? And that’s a great question! Their operations are sustainable because they have to be.

It wasn’t until the last decade that the sustainable agriculture movement began to include ecological and social impacts to its broader, more contemporary definition. Farmers and ranchers have long known they needed to take care of their lands so that they would produce. But today, it’s become hip and politically correct to stress that your operation is ecological and socially responsible. Otherwise, it’s lumped into the concept of a factory farm that is a business being operated only for its own self interests.

At a symposium in Chicago last week, BASF unveiled its new tool for measuring its products’ eco-efficiency, which takes into account environmental costs and social costs. BASF has named its eco-efficiency analysis AgBalance. Although this is a good step in terms of being able to measure a product’s footprint in more contemporary and socially acceptable terms, the real challenge is that multiple companies are creating or claiming their own sustainable agriculture measurement? How will agriculture agree on one standard? Without a standard definition and measuring system, how will anyone in agriculture be able to compare their operations against each other? Without the comparison, how will the data mean anything?

The industry will need one standard that can measure sustainable agriculture evenly and independently. However, even that could pose its own set of challenges to the industry because like previous measuring systems, once the industry identifies a standard, regulating bodies come in and use that standard as enforcement or negative public relations against the industry. However, a standard would provide the industry with some much needed quantifiable data to prove to the world that it is sustainable, ecological and socially responsible, which agriculture has always intrinsically known.

Source: Colleen Scherer, managing editor, AgProfessional




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