ON DEFINING SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE
University of Missouri
Among those working in sustainable agriculture, there seems to be a growing consensus that we need to spend less time trying to define sustainable agriculture and more time working to achieve it. In fact, the public mandate to carry out the National Training Program, commonly referred to as Chapter 3, requires that we move ahead with professional development programs addressing the sustainable agriculture issue. But, can we work toward a sustainable agriculture without defining it? We can, if we agree that the basic goal of a sustainable agriculture is agricultural sustainability, with the words agricultural and sustainability both used in the generic sense. Most of our definitional disagreements stem from differing opinions concerning the "means" by which a sustainable agriculture can or should be achieved rather than the "goal" toward which those means are directed.
"Sustainability is a question rather than an answer," as the late Robert Rodale was fond of saying. Sustainability is a direction rather than a destination, like a star that guides the ships at sea but remains forever beyond the horizon. The"question of sustainability" can be asked of any ongoing activity or process. It can be asked of "conventional" agriculture and of any proposed "alternative" agriculture: Is it sustainable? Asking the question need not, and should not, presuppose the answer.
Reaching agreement on the goal of sustainability will not be simple, but it should be achievable. First, we must agree on what is to be sustained, for whom, and for how long? But, if we can agree on the answers to these questions we should be able to move forward toward the common goal of agricultural sustainability. I believe most of those who support the sustainable agriculture issue are working to sustain what?:"agriculture," for the benefit of whom?: "humanity," for how long?: "forever." Agriculture, by its very nature, is an effort to shift the ecological balance so as to favor humans relative to other species in production of food and physical protection. Thus, if we sustain "agriculture" we are sustaining it for the ultimate benefit of humankind. I believe there is a general consensus also that we want to sustain agriculture for the well being of people, both of this generations and for all generations to follow, forever. I have seen no definition of sustainable agriculture that places a time horizon on how long agriculture should be sustained.
We cannot prove through empirical studies that one approach to agriculture is sustainable or that another is not. It would quite literally "take forever" to collect the data for such a study. Thus, we must rely on the science of logic. What are the logical prerequisites for agricultural sustainability? I believe there is a growing consensus in support of three fundamental prerequisites: A sustainable agriculture must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. Furthermore, I contend that these three dimensions of sustainability are inseparable, and thus, are equally critical to long run sustainability.
Most who are concerned about sustainability recognize an interconnectedness of humanity with the other biophysical elements of our natural environment. Through agriculture, we may tip the ecological balance in our favor. But if we attempt to tip it too far or too fast, we will destroy the integrity of the natural ecosystem, of which both we and our agriculture are apart. If we degrade our natural resources and poison our natural environment, we will degrade the productivity of agriculture and ultimately will destroy human life on earth. Nearly everyone seems to agree that a sustainable agriculture must be ecologically sound.
There may be less agreement regarding the contentions that a sustainable agriculture must also be economically viable and socially responsible. The social sciences of economics and sociology are fundamentally different from the physical agricultural sciences and the natural science of ecology. However, agriculture, by its nature, involves self-conscious attempts by humans to change or "manage" natural ecosystems. Humans are unique among species in that we make purposeful, deliberate decision that can either enhance or degrade the health of the ecosystems of which we are a part. Thus, and question of sustainability must take into account the purposeful, self-conscious nature of individual and collective human actions which are driven by the economic and social motives of people.
Sustainable systems must be economically viable, either by nature or through human intervention. In many cases, farmers have economic incentives to adopt ecologically sound systems of farming. A healthy agroecosystem tends to be a productive and profitable agroecosystem. However, inherent conflicts exist between short run interests of individuals and long run interests of society as a whole. In such cases, society must provide economic incentives for individuals to act in ways consistent with long run societal interests.
"Human nature" is a fundamental part of "nature." Even when our physical survival is ensured and our basic needs are met, the nature of we humans is to act in our own economic self interest. We need not "maximize profit," but people cannot persist inactions that are inconsistent with economic survival, regardless of any personal desire to do so. Enterprises that lack economic viability will lose control over use of ecological resources to their economically viable competitors. In other words, farmers who can't survive financially ultimately will lose their farms to their economically viable "neighbors." Agriculture cannot be sustained if the only economically viable "neighbors" are those who degrade the agroecosystem in pursuit of short run profits.
A fundamental purpose of public policy is to resolve conflicts between the short run interests of individuals and the long run interest of society as a whole. Ecologically sound systems of farming can be made economically viable through the public policy making process. However, society ultimately must pay the costs of such policies, either through availability and prices of food and fiber, or through government taxing and spending. By one means no another, farming systems must be made economically viable as well as ecologically sound if they are to be sustainable. Neither is more important than the other; both are necessary and neither is sufficient.
The ultimate consensus that a sustainable agriculture must be socially responsible is still emerging. However, to argue that an economically viable and ecologically sound system of agriculture can be sustained in the absence of social justice, is to ignore the fundamental nature of humans. At their very core, such arguments beg the question of sustainability for whom, or at least for how many? No set of ecologic possibilities can sustain the maximum population that humankind might possibly choose to procreate on this earth.
The history of human civilization provides little evidence to support a hypothesis that either regional or global population will automatically adjust to some optimum sustainable level. To the contrary, overpopulation seems more likely to result in destruction and degradation of the natural resource base. Evidence suggests that this degradation will continue to a point where only a fraction of the population can be sustained which might have been sustained if overpopulation had been avoided. No set or ecological constraints will prevent starving people from consuming the seeds that might have produced a bountiful harvest, if the harvest comes only after the people are dead.
Human societies that lack economic equity and social justice are inherently unstable, and thus, are not sustainable over time. Such system will be characterized by recurring social conflicts which may do irreparable damage to both the economic and ecologic systems that must support them. In an age of nuclear weapons and other forms of mass destruction, one instance of societal failure can destroy the ecosystem of an entire region. Even without war; deserts, droughts, floods, and famines are more frequently the ultimate result of failed social systems than of any naturally occurring ecosystem phenomena. Agriculture is a creation of human society. Under nearly all circumstances, a society has the ability to bribe, coerce, or force its agriculture to change if it fails to meet accepted standards of social responsibility.
A socially responsible agriculture; one that equitable meets basic human food and fiber needs, provides economic opportunity, supports self-determination, and ensures social equity for both current and future generations; is no less critical to long run sustainability than is an ecologically sound and economically viable agriculture. We must have social incentives to create economic rewards for ecological protection. An important dimension of human nature is our ability to learn, discover new options, and to choose new and different responses. This ability to change our stimulus-response patterns is unique to the human species. Sustainability is not possible unless we develop our"collective" will to exercise this uniquely human social trait.
Some may question the wisdom of placing the burdens of global sustainability on American agriculture. One might logically conclude that American agriculture is but one part of global agriculture, and that agriculture is but one small part of the larger global ecosystem. If risks arising from lack of sustainability within American agriculture can be counteracted elsewhere within global agriculture, or within the rest of the global ecosystem; the system as a whole will be sustainable. This conclusion is valid, but only within some fairly narrowly defined limits.
As an analogy, the human body is a system. The basic functions of some body organs, such as the liver and kidneys, is to handle wastes generated by other body functions. Some parts of the body, such as the heart and lungs, may adjust their activity to accommodate stresses placed on them by other parts of the body. Generation of waste is a normal function of any living organism, and some level of stress is necessary for a healthy body. However, the body as a whole is limited in its ability to assimilate wastes and adsorb stress. When its critical limits are exceeded, the over-stressed organ, a subsystem of the body, begins to die. When a critical organ or part of the body dies, the whole body dies. The system ceases to function.
When agriculture production in a particular field is not autonomously sustainable, it places stress on the farming system as a whole. When a farm is not autonomously sustainable, it places stress on the community of which it is a part. When an agricultural sector is not sustainable, it places stress on a nation; and a nation that is not sustainable places stress on the rest of the world. Some lack of autonomous sustainability at all levels should be considered normal, even necessary, for a healthy, interdependent global society. However, stresses that any one element of a system places on the system as a whole should be monitored and controlled, in the same sense that stresses on the human body need to be monitored and controlled.
It is no less important to monitor and control the social stress an agricultural system places on farm families and others in rural communities than it is to monitor the economic stress agriculture puts on food consumers or the ecological stress agriculture puts on its natural environment. An agricultural system that destroys a critical element of an agroecosystem will kill the system as a whole. We should be willing to ask of any proposed agricultural technology, enterprise, or activity: Is it socially responsible? Competent, well-informed scientists will disagree on the answers. Such is the nature of the social sciences. And, simply asking: "Is it socially responsible?", should not presuppose either a positive or negative answer. Questions of social responsibility ultimately must be answered by society, by families, communities, and others affected collectively by agricultural decisions. However, it is logically imperative that we recognize ecological soundness, economic viability, and social responsibility all as essential and thus equally critical to the sustainability of agriculture.
Finally, how do we turn these fundamental concepts into practical approaches to agricultural sustainability? I suggest that we do so by asking of every decision we confront: Will the consequences be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible? We can then set about gathering information and assembling knowledge that will allow us to draw conclusions concerning the answers to this three-part question. We can never know for sure whether our conclusions or decisions are right or wrong. Sustainability is about "forever." However, we will at least be asking the right questions. And, by focusing our efforts on gathering the right information and pursuing the right knowledge, we should at least improve the odds of finding the right answer.
The foregoing thesis does not define sustainable agriculture, instead it defines an approach to working for agricultural sustainability. The usefulness of any definition is often more apparent in what is excluded than in what is included. A definition that excludes nothing is useless.
So what does the proposed approach to sustainability exclude? First, it excludes those who do not accept agriculture as a legitimate human activity, without excluding those who question the sustainability of agriculture as it is currently practiced. It also excludes those who see organic farming as the only means of achieving agricultural sustainability, without excluding those who view organic farming as an approach worthy of study or active pursuit. It excludes those who refuse to consider ecological soundness, economic viability, or social responsibility as equally important dimensions of sustainability; those who contend that if a system is ecologically sound, social values and economic incentives will adjust; those who contend that if a system is profitable, it's sustainable, period; and those who contend it is not necessary to provide economic incentives for farmers or other individuals to meet the long run needs of society.
This approach also excludes those who see other living species as having as much right to the earth's resources as humans, without excluding those who see human survival and well being as critically interrelated with the other biological and physical elements of the global ecosystem. Thus, it excludes those who feel that animals have rights in the same sense that humans have rights, without excluding those who are dedicated to humane treatment of animals and animal well-being in general.
The proposed approach excludes those who see agriculture as separable from the rest of the ecosystem, those who would set aside spaces for farming separate from spaces for wildlife or from spaces for living. It excludes those who fail to see food production and human population as consequences of interdependent actions within the same systems context. It excludes those with a blind faith in technological fixes, without excluding those who see human intervention, through new technology and by other means, as an essential element of agriculture. It excludes those who feel that agriculture should produce food but need not productively employ people or otherwise contribute positively to the quality of human life. It excludes those who fail to see the intentional self-conscious actions of people as an essential dimension of agroecosystems.
The approach excludes those who refuse to question the sustainability of conventional agriculture, without excluding those who feel that a conventional farming system can evolve so as to fulfill the ecologic and social prerequisites for long run sustainability. And, it excludes those who have prejudged conventional agriculture as being unsustainable, without excluding those who firmly believe that an alternative paradigm, or fundamentally different model of farming, offers the best hope for sustaining agriculture in the future. The proposed approach includes a wide range of alternative means of pursuing agricultural sustainability, but at the same time, excludes those approaches which tend to be narrow or exclusive.
Hopefully, the general approach to agricultural sustainability suggested here can provide some common direction to our programs for providing professional development opportunities for those in Extension and other public and private agencies who work directly with farmers. There is an apparent need to develop a consensus among these groups regarding the general approach to sustainable agriculture that is to be taken by this educational program. Hopefully, the thesis presented here can begin a dialogue that eventually will define an acceptable education approach without continually debating the definition of sustainable agriculture.