The challenge of sustainable agriculture

In the book The Town that Food Saved, Ben Hewitt presents a rather jaundiced view of the term sustainable. The following quote touches on a number of substantial issues.  It is a wonderful starting point for discussing what a more environmentally sound food production system might look like:

“Sustainable,” like “green” and “organic” is an easily corruptible concept that, not surprisingly, has been willfully corrupted by people who would very much like to sell you a hybrid SUV or an Energy Star- rated flat-screen TV with no money down and zero percent interest for 60 months. There is very little about agriculture that is truly sustainable. At its core, agriculture is a human manipulation of a natural process. Is there are version of agriculture that is truly sustainable? Probably so. Is there a version of agriculture that is truly sustainable and able to feed 7 billion people? Almost certainly not.

Sustainability is an overused and often misappropriated word, but I am not ready to abandon it to TV and SUV marketers.  If we view sustainability as a trajectory rather than a near term endpoint, it is an idea with value.  Understanding the degree to which one option is more or less sustainable than another does have merit. Of course for this to work, comparisons must go beyond simple labels to detailed information about how and to what degree different options measure up.

As for there being a version of sustainable agriculture that can feed 7 billion people, I don’t know.  I can’t envision 7 billion people consuming the 3,000 to 4,000 calories the average American consumes.  But, people don’t need anywhere near that many calories and our agricultural systems can certainly be made more sustainable.

Of course, a world in which resources are distributed more equitably and where the costs associated with over-consumption are paid by those that over-consume (present company included), looks very different from the world we have today.  The amount of education and behavior change that is needed is enormous.

I believe we, as a society, have the technical ability and the fortitude to address the challenges we face. What is missing is a broader recognition of the problem and the determination to address it.