My farm friends are rolling their eyes right now. Sustainability. We hear it every day. And like me saying “stop that” to my kids, the word rolls off our backs.
It means nothing.
People shout it from the roof-tops, McDonald’s demands it, but only Webster has defined it. “Capable of lasting for a long time.”
And nebulous. Sustainability is many things. To make farms last you’ll need land, soil, energy, labor, infrastructure, and profit. You’ll need to keep our water clean and air clear. Let’s add fair treatment of animals too.
The thing is we all look at sustainability from our own viewpoint.
If you focus on energy you might be in favor of smaller farms, more reminiscent of an era when agriculture didn’t depend on massive machinery. But then you’ll need more labor. You need people leaving their careers in the city to grow food.
If your concern is soil conservation you may want farmers to use less of the land, disrupting dirt less often. In this case you’ll sacrifice economics, sending farmers to other jobs to support their families.
If you’d like animals roaming in green pastures you’ll have to deal with streams polluted from their waste.
Are you seeing my point? To view agriculture through just one or two of these lenses is to not be sustainable at all.
Like beef. Recently a committee suggested the government remove red meat from its recommendations because it isn’t sustainable. They believe the land used to grow food for cows could be used to grow food for people instead.
Here’s the thing. Some of the land my family owns isn’t good for growing plants. The hills are too steep or the soil isn’t great. We call this “cow ground.” Even if we stopped eating beef that land wouldn’t be able to grow broccoli, spinach, or yams.
To make this land grow vegetables you’d need a huge labor force. You’d need more water and you’d have to add nutrients to the soil, which leads to run-off in our streams. After all that the spinach would probably cost more than you’d want to pay.
Also, like your grandparents fed scraps to a pig they fattened for fall, animals can make productive use of things that are waste to humans. For example, animals use straw, which is the stalk from wheat plants. And the ground that grows only grass can be baled for hay.
Leaving farms for future generations isn’t a simple thing. I think it will involve more science and technology and hopefully less of that roof-top shouting.
Next time someone tries to sell you something grown “sustainably” find out what that means. And how true it really is.