Pondering Sustainability and the Food Chain

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

If you Google the word “sustainability,” you get 24,900,000 hits. You read that correctly – twenty-four million, nine hundred thousand references to what it means to be “sustainable.”

This seems about right given the number of conversations I’ve had, e-mails I’ve received, and projects I’ve heard of over the last several weeks about sustaining food and agriculture. Maybe I’ve been under a rock somewhere, but all of a sudden everyone and everything wants or needs to be sustainable.

Problem is each of the 24,900,000 seems to be coming at the issue from a slightly different direction. It’s much like the response from the former head of animal science at a major university when I asked if there is a consensus definition on what constitutes “animal welfare.” His response was, “Put 150 animal scientists and vets in a room and ask them that question and you’ll get 150 different, equally defensible answers.”

As the corporate world jumps collectively on to the sustainability bandwagon, how long will it be before Congress, or the Obama administration particularly, decides they must get into the fray, putting their spin on the sustainability movement? April brings the first of a series of Washington, DC, hearings on the 2012 farm bill. I can already hear the arguments for a “green” farm bill, a “consumer” farm bill, and, of course, a “sustainable” farm bill.

Credit for coining the term “sustainable agriculture” goes back to 1980, when Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute in Salina, KS, published his book, New Roots for Agriculture. My first encounter with the term was during the gestation and birth of the 1990 farm bill, and the result is the definition below, taken from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Web page.

“Under that law, the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

• satisfy human food and fiber needs;

• enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;

• make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;

• sustain the economic viability of farm operations;

enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.” (Emphasis added.)

The first four points are the traditional points of sustainability; they go to the fundamental realities of food and fiber production. It’s that last goal that gives me pause, not because I disagree with it, but because it seems to have gotten lost in the storm of sustainability programs spawned almost daily. I’d also argue that if the quality of life for farmers and their suppliers is enhanced, you’ve just done a heck of a favor for society as a whole.

Some food companies – processors and retailers – as part of their corporate social responsibility programs or a need/desire to put on their public sustainability face, seem to be forgetting that without the folks at the beginning of the chain, there ain’t much of a chain.

The underlying problem is determining what is wanted or needed to sustain. When it comes to production agriculture, the challenge is even greater today as the term transcends simply producing enough to feed folks while staying in business. Over time, the priority shifted to environmental sustainability, as in can more be grown without depleting the land, poisoning the air, and polluting the watershed. Now, it’s been broadened, primarily by corporate interests, to include so-called ethical considerations.

There are two factors that play into many of the new wave of sustainability programs. One is a hesitance or downright aversion to talking about profitability as a goal of a sustainability plan. The other is the advent of several ethical criteria for sustainability, many of which have no basis in science or fact, but play well in the press release.

In a recent conversation with a group of major national and multinational company executives on how best to define “sustainable,” one gentleman said profitability must be a distinct sustainability goal. Several of the others, however, thought any public statement on sustainability that mentions profit or financial success will be viewed as just another cynical corporate move, and isn’t profitability implicit in sustainability?

It may be implicit for a multinational company that has the luxury of defining its own sustainability criteria. And granted, if any firm can achieve the top five then it’ll likely be successful overall. However, it must be recognized that it’s wrong for independent farmers, ranchers, feed companies, renderers, or other ingredient suppliers to be told they may have to sublimate their own potential for economic success to fulfill their customer’s sustainability goal. For these companies, ensuring profitability has to be right there near the top of any set of sustainability benchmarks.

The ethical criteria for sustainability are perhaps more problematic since they’re subjective by nature and open to debate as to exactly how ethical and necessary they might be. Whether it’s a company or industry definition of environmentally friendly, to requirements on how the animal that surrendered the meat that went to make the hot dog was raised, or what constitutes an ethical employment program, these tend to be arbitrary and may not be attainable in the real world by all players.

As the notion of sustainability transcends its novelty and becomes standard operating procedure for companies throughout the food chain, it’s inevitable that politicians will become more involved, either to take credit for whatever benefits ensue from the movement or to try and place their own stamp on the definitions and standards of these efforts. It’s in all of our best interest to ensure any attention paid or action taken emanates first and foremost from a real world perspective, i.e., farmers, ranchers, and the industries that supply them and rely upon them remain prosperous. Further, as a company contemplates warm and fuzzy criteria for sustainability, the ethical goals it thinks will win it special favors in the marketplace must ensure no harm is done back down the chain.

View from Washington – April 2010 RENDER | back