Agricultural Sustainability?

written by Jane Grueber

All this talk of sustainability, food security, policy making and consumer demand piqued my interest. Where is this all going? What does it mean for the environment, farmers, farm workers, food processors, retailers and, of course, consumers?

My conversation with Carolyn Herriot, Author of The Zero-Mile Diet, got me thinking and reading about the functional definition of sustainable agriculture; the current and future states. What does the consumer currently know and need to know about sustainable agriculture practices and policies as well as the overall impact those have on what we eat?

Here are some good reads on this topic:

  1. UNCTAD: Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate
  2. Ecological Agricultural Projects, McGill University, Canada
  3. Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms, USDA

As a consumer, I want a better grasp of the broader food systems involved in “sustainability”. One thing that stands out immediately is that the concept of “sustainable agriculture” is a continually evolving and moving target.

Researchers at UCDavis published an informative article about this topic. They identified ideas, practices and policies that embody their concept of sustainable agriculture in order to “clarify the research agenda and to suggest practical steps that may be appropriate for moving toward sustainable agriculture.”

They note that since World War II, there have been many changes in agriculture:

“Food and fiber productivity soared due to new technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization and government polices that favored maximizing production.”

“There were many positive outcomes and reduced risks in farming, there have also been significant negative consequences including the erosion and depletion of topsoil, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm laborers, increasing costs of production, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.” (What is sustainable agriculture?, pg. 1-2 )

Over the last few decades, there has been a movement toward more sustainable agriculture and now it is taking traction as public awareness increases and agricultural policies of the past have proven to be detrimental. One only needs to look at the Food Is Free movement that is occurring world wide or at the pilot project Costco is doing to see that there is a shift. Even the food processing companies are taking notice.

Image result for farming pictures free

The UCDavis researchers define sustainability as the following:

“Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, stewardship of both natural and human resources is of prime importance.” 

“Sustainable approaches are those that are the least toxic and least energy intensive, and yet maintain productivity and profitability. Preventative strategies and other alternatives should be employed before using chemical inputs from any source.” 

“…reaching toward the goal of sustainable agriculture is the responsibility of all participants in the system, including farmers, laborers, policymakers, researchers, retailers and consumers.”  (What is sustainable agriculture? pg. 3-5)

As I mentioned, sustainable agriculture is a complex and evolving concept (as agricultural practices, technology, and scientific knowledge change and evolve) that interacts with various environmental, economic, social and consumer pressures. Consumers need to know what the agricultural policies are, what goals agriculture is striving for (e.g., sustainability) and then go and give a great big push in the right direction. Nothing will get us closer to sustainable agriculture than a well informed consumer voting loud and clear with the almighty dollar!

 

Free From” Labeling – Just a Thought

Demand for local, organic, fair trade and GMO free food is on the rise. As consumer trend reports for 2016 indicated, ‘free from‘ product labeling and advertising can now be found on store shelves everywhere. For example, gluten-free, antibiotic free, free from high fructose corn syrup, sugar free, etc. The food processing companies have taken notice of this “free from trend” and are dishing out advice on how to ride this wave. So what about produce? Doesn’t it need a ‘free from‘ label, too, at least when it comes to particular agricultural practices? So what exactly should we be asking for in terms of ‘free from’ labeling when it comes to produce?

Here is my suggested Top 10 List of “Must Be Free From” Labels for Produce

  • Free from shipping over thousands of kilometers
  • Free from known toxins
  • Free from genetic engineering of seeds
  • Free from growing in depleted/eroded topsoil
  • Free from ground water contamination
  • Free from cages
  • Free from monoagriculture
  • Free from unfair compensation of farm labourers
  • Free from the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities
  • Free from government policies favoring unsustainable agricultural practices that contribute to further social, environmental and economic problems in the entire food system

Image result for farming pictures free

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