Every once in a while, the forces that be select a term from relative obscurity and elevate it to the forefront of the public consciousness. These terms, known commonly as buzz words, come to be associated with a specific cultural movement or feeling and help to define the flavor of the current social climate. Over the last decade, few words have buzzed as loudly and persistently as the term ‘sustainability’.

As with many buzzwords, there are a lot of different perceptions on what exactly ‘sustainability’ means, particularly when applied to agriculture. Most will agree that the term refers to good farming practices which produce high quality food in a manner that is healthy for both the land and the consumer. However, when we try to nail it down any further, the specifics can get a bit messy.  

As it turns out, what is ‘sustainable’ is often a matter of perspective. Crucially, and unsurprisingly, producers (i.e. farmers) and consumers have different views on what is sustainable farming.

Years of popular use, most notably in the field of marketing, have seen the word ‘sustainability’ stretched in a number of ways that take the term farther away from practical real-world applications and into the realm of ideologies.

Remember the 100 mile diet—back in 2008-2009 this was a short-lived ‘sustainability’ movement that challenged individual consumers to only purchase food produced within 100-miles of their home. Beyond just supporting local producers, the movement encouraged sustainability on two fronts: a) by drawing attention to environmental issues surrounding food distribution; and b) by encouraging consumers to make informed decisions about the origin of the food they purchase. This was a practical and real-world way individuals could support practices they believe to be sustainable and feel good about the food they ate—even if they cheated occasionally and bought chocolate or bananas, it was still a move in the right direction in that it encouraged individuals to make green-lifestyle changes.  

However, recent years have seen the term drift into ideological territory with a shifting focus often conflating sustainable food production with a number of issues including fair trade, organic products and ethics. To be fair, the confusion is not unfounded, there is a lot of overlap between what is sustainable and what is ethical (e.g. encouraging biodiversity on farmable land). And, fair-trade practices do help support local small scale indigenous farmers in developing countries—the coffee trade is well known for such practices.    

However, what is ethical can be very subjective while many modern sustainable food production practices are based on scientific studies and advancements. This relationship is exploited by marketers to help ‘greenwash’ products—when a product is labeled as ‘ethical’, consumers tend to project their own understanding of the term on to the product and assume it was produced in a sustainable manner consistent with their personal understanding of the word—which may or may not be the case.      

Even more controversial, at least for agriculturalists, is the relationship between sustainability and organic produce. While many organic products can be produced in a sustainable manner, there are sometimes long term problems that can arise. 

For example, to produce certified organic grain in Canada, a farmer is prohibited from applying synthetic fertilizer which can allow for precision soil maintenance. With each organic crop taking more and more nutrients from the soil, organic farming can actually be detrimental to the long-term health of the land without careful soil management—organic fertilizer may be plentiful but the variable rates of nitrates, phosphates and sulfates in compost and manure mean precision management of soil nutrients is near impossible. Getting enough nitrogen may mean too much phosphate; this may result in a possible chemical build up and potential soil deterioration.  

The point of our discussion thus far is to highlight the differing perspectives on what it means to be sustainable. When contrasting the perspectives of a producer (i.e. farmer) and a consumer, it is probably the least romantic aspect of agriculture that is responsible for the largest gap in perspective — economics. 

Simply put, a farmer needs to adopt sustainable agricultural practices to protect their land thus ensuring their future productivity and revenue stream—sustainability is a practical investment to secure their own livelihood. Sustainability to a farmer means weighing economic inputs against sound agricultural practices that maximize yields and re-invigorate the land. For a farmer, it’s all about balance.

However, a consumer will purchase sustainable products as an investment in our global future—sustainable agriculture benefits everyone after all. Consumers tend not to be overly concerned about the economic feasibility of any given agricultural practice assuming it is not perceived to be harmful to the environment.     

Ultimately, differing perspectives on sustainability does not necessitate that either be right or wrong. It is important to recognize the merits of multiple perspectives on the same issue. While farmers tend to focus on practicality, consumers concerned with sustainability are generally driven by green ideology. Ideology drives innovation, innovation leads to practical applications, and practical applications mean more sustainably produced food. 

Continued discussion on sustainability benefits everyone.  

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