By: Terry D. Etherton, PhD Date: 11/4/11
Sustainable is a popular word these days in conversations about the practices used to produce our food. The word is used and misused extensively.
I have asked many folks what sustainable food production means. The answers are diverse, and astonishing in some instances. Some convey that sustainable food production is the only “way” and that unsustainable agriculture doesn’t work. The latter response is more than puzzling to me. If the business is not economically sustainable then it is unsustainable.
My perspective is that sustainable should first be viewed through the “lens” of economic sustainability. Farms are businesses. If they don’t make money they close…pretty simple.
However, sustainable gets used in a myriad of confusing ways. For example, some in society talk about sustainable in the context of this being the “best” food production practice to embrace. I am sure many readers have seen the marketing message: organic food production is more sustainable than other agricultural production practices and, therefore, better.
There are other sound bites that convey free-range or pasture-fed production practices are more sustainable than conventional ag production practices. I even went to a restaurant in San Francisco that markets their restaurant as being sustainable because they focus on urban, rustic food that was sourced from a “sense of place”. By the way, I still don’t know what urban, rustic food is.
The reality is that well managed and profitable farm businesses are sustainable irrespective of production practice. And, the food is all the same from a nutrient quality and health standpoint.
Some “spin” sustainable in an environmental context to convey that there are ag production practices (think large scale ag) that are not being managed in an environmentally and sustainably effective way. This is another example of misleading and inaccurate messaging.
Some even use sustainable to attack science…if products of biotechnology are used in agriculture, the food production practice is not sustainable! In fact, the opposite is the case, use of biotechnology has many benefits for agriculture that range from environmental to improved production efficiency.
The sustainable campaign even spins into the arena of subsidies for farmers. I have come to appreciate that more than a few individuals believe that without farm subsidies, large farms would not exist. They rail that we should limit subsidies to big agribusinesses. This is another deceptive and misleading communication message. Recent data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates that the level of support for agriculture in the U.S. is much lower than many other developed countries (see Figure). In the U.S., the Producer Support Estimate was 9% in 2008-2010. This is dramatically lower than the European Union level of support (22%), which some view as a haven of “sustainable” food production practices.
My encouragement is that we celebrate the contemporary food system that we have evolved, and not get hung up on the use of the word sustainable. One looming issue that is high on my priority list is to develop and implement new technologies that will help feed the 10 billion individuals that are projected to populate the world in 2050.
Terry D. Etherton, PhD is Distinguished Professor of Animal Nutrition and Head of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science, Pennsylvania State University. He blogs regularly at the Terry Etherton Blog on Biotechnology.