Sustainable Is What Sustainable Does

Everywhere you look, there’s a poetic irony to today’s high-speed rush toward “slow” food and agricultural sustainability.

For example, throughout the U.S. well-informed, well-intentioned shoppers see no inherent conflict in driving their tank-sized SUVs to the local organic cooperative to purchase sustainably-grown meat, fruit, dairy products, and vegetables.

Corporate America is little different. It spends billions on brains and millions in jet fuel to sniff out, then buy, pieces of today’s hottest new business sector, sustainable food. Witness Spam-making Hormel Foods; in May, it paid $775 million to purchase of Applegate Farms LLC, an organic meat seller.

Farm and ranch organizations, too, now spend wheelbarrows of dough on “new” media to remake their dull, gray images and messages to more hip-sounding, more sustainable-suggesting phrases and ideas. Genetically modified seed now is all about “reducing pesticide use” or “feeding the world” and a part of Grandpa’s long-gone clover patch has, like Lazarus, risen again as a “sustainable cover crop.”

Driving most of these efforts—as well as the corporate jets and glitzy image makeovers—is the generous latitude almost everyone takes in defining the word “sustainable.” To Big Biz and Big Ag, sustainable is more a marketing device than a holistic production system. Sustainable sells so “sustainable”—whatever that is—is what they are.

Just how far that view can be stretched is showcased in the latest Big Ag group developing its own definition of sustainability. That group modestly calls itself the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Who and what is the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef?

“GRSB is,” according to its website, “the strategic platform where leading organizations within the beef industry, environmental branch, retailers and others with a close interest in the industry partner to advance continuous improvement in sustainability of the global beef value chain through sharing their knowledge of leadership, science and through multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration.”

Whoa, cowboy. Can phrases like “global beef value chain” and “multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration” even be used to define sustainable?

Sure, if your goal is to dictate production criteria that then becomes “sustainable” beef, says Mark Rasmussen, an expert in sustainable farming who also serves as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Self-serving definitions of sustainability are “pretty common, actually,” notes Rasmussen. “Almost every farm and food group has their own. Consumers have little to no idea what any of these might mean or what the differences between them are.”

There are, however, several, widely accepted definitions of sustainable agriculture used both in the U.S. and around the around the world that, not surprisingly, are far more cultural than corporate.

In 1990, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggested sustainable agriculture should “over the long term, satisfy human needs, enhance environmental quality and natural resource base, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and integrate natural biological processes, sustain economic viability and enhance quality of life.”

What, no room for global value chains? Huh.

When the state of Iowa established the Leopold Center, legislators defined sustainable agriculture as agriculture that maintains “economic and social viability while preserving the high productivity and quality of Iowa’s land.”

That means “In general, sustainable agriculture addresses the ecological, economic and social aspects of agriculture. To be sustainable, agriculture can operate only when the environment, its caretakers and surrounding communities are healthy.”

Did those wise Iowans who established the Leopold Center almost 30 years ago simply not know about “multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration” when they wrote their definition of sustainability?

They knew. Moreover, those leaders also knew that agricultural sustainability—whether it was about farms, farm communities, or the food those communities grow and offer to you—has nothing to do with global roundtables, corporate branding, or claims of environmental commitment.

The only ones that don’t seem to know it are Big Biz and Big Ag, and the confused consumers in between.

© 2015 ag comm

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