The Sustainability of Sustainable

The collected eyes of the world are focused on a seemingly endless list of crises, each of which are approaching a level that can be described with every known synonym for the word: critical. Agricultural and seafood production, clean water, energy, population, air quality, and countless additional global issues are seeking models in which production can be sustainable. These are real issues affecting billions of people that deserve serious attention. In these various contexts, the goal is aptly and accurately described as sustainability.

The definition is straightforward: sustainable pertains to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse. The difficulty – and there is always a difficulty – is reaching agreement on what level of production is ideal for a sustainability system. A common critique of proposed sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture, for example, is that crop yields for organic or natural food production fall behind those achievable with contemporary methods using herbicides, pesticides, and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). This strikes me as an apples-to-oranges comparison; sustainability and high yield are two different goals, and the criticism implies that yield is the more important of the two: “we need to feed the world’s growing population!” Interestingly, this also implies that the high yields obtained today by commercial practices will always continue (sustainable?), and yet, few believe they will; hence the before mentioned crisis point.

Importantly, focusing on yield as the only significant measure of successful agriculture, keeps one’s vision away from the other outcomes of such practices: environmental degradation, farm worker safety, the toxins in our food, the inhumanity of animal treatment, and the unsustainability of the financial model on which it is all based.

Also, it is no longer obvious that the highly touted yields of industrial farming and GMS use are, in fact, higher than can be obtained using more environmental and labor friendly strategies (see this blog entry from the Union of Concern Scientists). The Marsden Farm Study (see study summary) for example, recently published in PLoS ONE by Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, found that “low-input, high-diversity” (LIHD) rotations outperform the conventional system in yields and produce similar profits. On average, corn yields in the diverse rotations were four percent greater and soybean yields nine percent greater.” If this puts the lie to rationales for current practices, perhaps we really can narrow our focus on the issue of sustainability.

Of course, many of the fragile, endangered ecosystems described above can be made immediately sustainable if the people of the world stopped exploiting their resources. We could dramatically lower our consumption of seafood, plant organic gardens, begin a rational use of water, conserve energy, cease emitting pollutants, and slow our reproduction rate. Some noble souls have taken this route, but this would be unpalatable to most. The real challenge therefore, is designing systems that are both sustainable and still provides amounts of food, water, energy, and clean air reasonably close to which we have become accustomed. In true American spirit, this will not happen until an actual crisis arrives that affects our lives.

We can each do our part, of course, but these are true global and population-centered problems that require sophisticated approaches, and significant changes to government policies. This is especially true for our food production system, and for the significant fraction of the population who live in urban areas, involves a system for which individual means of food production are unrealistic and impossible. It is unlikely, moreover, that the average person even understands how our system of food production works. Few people understand the economic model on which industrial agriculture is built. For that matter, few people truly know what it is in the food they eat. With this limited knowledge base, therefore, few are in a position to make significant or useful contributions to proposed models of sustainable agriculture.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I recently learned that a massive open online course (MOOC) from the University of Minnesota has been announced on the topic of Sustainability of Food Systems that anyone with an internet connection can enroll in:

For more information on MOOCs and the impact of this new teaching model on higher education, I encourage you to read this article in Scientific American. Dr. Jason Hill, McKnight Land-Grant Professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota, has the background, expertise, and if the introductory video is any measure, the relaxed speaking style necessary to make this course offering approachable and valuable to a broad range of people. For those seeking expert, structured guidance on the topic, this course seems like a great opportunity.

For those of us lucky enough to live in the Washington DC area, another opportunity to learn about sustainable diets is offered through The Food Forum Workshop on Sustainable Diets, taking place at the National Academy of Science on May 7th and 8th. The meeting is sponsored by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, and seeks, in addition to other agenda items, to “further discussion of how to incorporate environmental sustainability into U.S. dietary guidance policies.” Although this workshop will undoubtedly be less structured and less comprehensive in its approach to the topic of sustainability than the above course offering, this is an excellent opportunity for those seeking a more active, participatory role in the dialog.

For those in search of information that more practically guides their efforts at home to create a personal or local environment capable of sustainable food production, a soon to be released book by Michael Mobbs, entitled Sustainable Food, would appear to be ideal: 

The paperback is scheduled to be released on April 1st. Michael Mobbs is the author of the very popular Sustainable House book published in 2010. In his new book, Mr. Mobbs promises “practical advice on establishing community and backyard vegetable gardens, keeping chooks (chickens) and bees, and reducing water usage, along with insights into dealing with councils, sidelining supermarkets, and what people eat and why. A template is provided for those wishing to learn sustainability measures and put them into practice.”

Sustainability may be a buzzword, and the arguments for sustainability may appear as either hype or fear mongering, but it need not be any of these. A little knowledge can go a long way towards placing the need for a sustainable planet in proper perspective, and there appears to be many interesting ways to gain this knowledge. Go for it.

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