What is Sustainability?

There are a lot of buzz words in agriculture today. GMO, non-GMO, organic? Natural? Sustainability? All of these words are worth learning more about.

Today, let’s spend some time with sustainability. It is a key word in our mission statement, after all: “Gathering Ground educates youth and adults in sustainable agriculture and promotes economic development through agriculture, to strengthen the health of individuals, the Washington Island community, and the environment.”

At the very basic level, if something is sustainable, it means it is “capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level” (Oxford English Dictionary). One might use the word like this: “This ice cream eating contest isn’t sustainable. We can’t keep eating ice cream at this rate; I’m getting too full and am starting to feel sick.”

In the 1970s, this word started to be applied to environmental concerns. One of its first notable uses was by a group of thought-leaders in 1976, who presented a paper entitled, “The Wolfcreek Statement: Toward a Sustainable Energy Society,” which encouraged the consideration of energy conservation and safe alternatives because this group of environmental scientists concluded that fossil fuels were too capital intensive to be a sustainable source of energy.

Since then sustainability has been applied to agriculture, a lot. I’ve always understood that “sustainable agriculture” is a good thing, but I didn’t always know why. Below I’ve outlined why current agricultural practices are unsustainable and what sustainable agricultural practices might look like.

Why are current agricultural practices unsustainable?

    • The loss of topsoil, a.k.a. erosion or land degradation. No matter what you call it, the loss of topsoil is serious. Scientists have learned that every year we lose about 2 billion tons of soil in the United States alone, but it takes roughly 2,000 years to generate four inches of topsoil. This is clearly a case of unsustainability. We are using up topsoil faster that it regenerates. At this rate, some scientists have estimated that we have less than 60 to 100 years of agricultural soils left. If you want your kids or grandkids to eat, this is unsustainable.
    map of the world, showing areas of soil degradation

    Image courtesy of Philippe Rekacewicz, UNEP/GRID-Arendal

    • Farmers are aging. Across all sectors, U.S. workers are aging, but farming is one of the mostly rapidly aging sectors. In 2012, the average age of farmers in the U.S. was 58 years old, with over 200,000 farmers over the age of 75; at some point these farmers will want to retire and pass the torch to the next generation.
    • Energy costs. In a 2004 report, the Congressional Research Service found that unstable energy costs cause a lot of uncertainty in agricultural profits. They recommended that agriculture (a.k.a. farmers) need to become “energy independent” in order to be more sustainable.
    These are just three of the reasons current agriculture practices are not sustainable in the long term. And these are also just some of the reasons Gathering Ground wants to teach more people about agricultural practices that:

    • retain or even improve the health of topsoil. There are lots of ideas promoted by the USDA to lessen the amount of erosion, including no-till, crop rotation, and using green manure crops. We want to practice and develop these techniques as well as use methods that actually improve the health of topsoil. We will talk more about this exciting field in another blog series.
    •  are creative and attract the next generation of farmers. There are many reasons sons and daughters of farmers are choosing to move away from the farm. We believe that one of the reasons is because a lot of the joy and creativity of farming has been reduced by the very same methods that make it unsustainable for the land.
    • use less energy inputs so that profitability is more manageable. One of creative, problem-solving techniques we will focus on is closed-loop farming. If a farm is managed right, can it produce all the energy and fertilizer it needs to grow profitable crops?

    So it seems, one of the reasons why it is hard to define what “sustainability” means is because it means a great many different things. So if I had to boil it down to a dictionary-style definition, I might say that sustainability, in terms of agricultural means:

    1. Growing food in a way that works with nature, not against it, so that farms will be able to endure for generations.

    2. Growing food in a way that farmers enjoy their careers and are adequately compensated, so more people want to be farmers when they grow up.

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