Seed World

The Many Definitions of Sustainability

With everyone talking about sustainability, how do you define what sustainable agriculture is?

Sustainability is a word that seems to be everywhere these days, especially in agriculture. With it being used so interchangeably, it’s hard to know what exactly sustainability is and what those working in agriculture are expected to do when it comes to achieving their sustainability goals.

“The consumer now is expecting more and more expecting that everything that they’re going to eat is going to be 100 per cent risk free, natural, no chemicals,” David Zaruk, the Risk-Monger, said during a presentation at Manitoba Potato Production Days on Jan. 25, 2023. “Now those expectations are being put up regulated. So how does that happen? Who’s behind that?”

Zaruk has found it’s mainly non-governmental organizations (NGOs) telling the government what these regulations should be. There’s also a lot of foundations involved who fund these organizations, including the organic food industry. However, Zaruk said what scares him the most is the effect American corporate lawyers are having when it comes to issues such as glyphosate civil lawsuits.

“We begin to see here that there are many actors with an interest presenting a certain story of what is considered sustainable farming,” he explains, adding this is what leads to regulatory changes and removes access to products farmers use on their farms.

Consumers expect zero risk in the food they eat, not understanding that food production is about risk management, Zaruk said. He finds most regulators don’t comprehend how to manage risk and instead take a hazard-based approach to their decisions. At the end of the day, Zaruk has found it comes down to consumer trust and who they trust influencing what is considered sustainable.

The origin of sustainability goes back to 1992 when the ideas of sustainability and corporate social responsibility were born. The idea was that people didn’t want to take from future generations then, so therefore people needed to live within their means, Zaruk explained.

“Now we speak about sustainability related to climate change, biodiversity — kind of hard to measure these things in sustainability,” he added.

Agroecologists say sustainability in agriculture is the deindustrialization of farming and moving away from large scale farming to smaller land holders. By doing this, agriculture will move away from its reliance on chemical inputs therefore making it sustainable.

“Sustainability now is a very value laden concept. It’s become a virtue to be sustainable. What does that mean? Something may be natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable,” Zaruk said.

The term sustainable has evolved, and Zaruk now sees agriculture as needing sustainable intensification. This means agriculture needs to grow food better by achieving higher yields on more productive land and using land that’s less productive for non-agricultural uses. He said technology is key to doing this, which is why communication about the importance of technology is critical.

“Communication is being able to identify a value — a feeling that can be transmitted from one person to another. And a lot of the values that are being attached to the feelings are quite negative about agriculture. So, we really have to work on how to communicate these technologies,” Zaruk explained.

To do this, agriculture needs to speak with one clear concise voice to share the same message instead of sharing many messages that may confuse people. By focusing on the benefits of innovations and how historically innovations have helped move agriculture forward it will help, Zaruk said.

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