Friday, January 5, 2018

Am I Sustainable Yet?

January 2007
©John Phipps 2007

The best I can discover, my mother’s family began their connection with our farm in 1854. So, we’re talking 150+ years and counting. Another way of putting this is: Abraham Smith, Shepherd B. Smith, William Monroe Smith, Hallie Smith Jennings, Mary Louise Jennings Phipps, and ta-dah – John Phipps. I tend to favor this dating method.

Now add in the fact, that according to every objective measure I can afford, the soil – the physical dirt on which I stand – is in better shape than when I began my career. Phosphorus and potassium levels are higher, organic matter has almost doubled, and the few erosion problems I had (water drains toward our farm, not away) are at least partially mitigated. Yield charts are pointed in the right direction, our wells test clean, and the tilth of the soil (admittedly hard to measure) is better with the drainage we continually add.

I think I’m sustainable. Really.  I think we can keep this act going for a few more decades at a minimum. But since I have already freely confessed to being an industrial farmer, it turns out I am disqualified from claiming sustainability.

So what are the criteria?  Funny you should ask, because like “natural” and “organic” this definition is illusive. One source offers this standard: “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.” Note the use of the words “rests on” rather than “is”.  One way to insure that sustainability is reserved for the right people is to embed as many subjective qualities as possible in the definition. “Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals--environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.” Guess who will judge the “social equity” part of the competition.

Factoring in external costs (pollution, erosion, etc.) should be the function of the market, and if adopted, would further many goals for sustainable ag proponents. An oil tax would be an example. However, my prediction is even with such constraints, industrial agriculture would find a solution, since change is what we do best.

Sustainability often is code for “self-contained”. Sustainable ag proponents are drawn to the idea of minimal non-local inputs. Using fertilizer from vast deposits in Morocco, for example violates this concept of the closed circle of production, even though employing such assets when they otherwise would yield zero return seems to be a win-win decision.

Sustainable agriculture relies upon animals to complete many of the “closed-circuits” of nutrient cycles. Strangely, this is not seen as technology, even though it is arguably unnatural: man alters animal lives to his purpose, i.e. domestication. Similarly the use of lime for pH control is countenanced likely because it is ubiquitous and hence “local”. I wonder if a farm with a potash deposit could apply it and still be sustainable.

In fact, sustainability is another maxim by which agrarian thought closes itself to the world. However, if I define my community as the globe, I am not using any “outside” inputs. Given the increased linkage of the global economy, is this an unreasonable enlargement of “community”? Perhaps, but when viewed from this perspective, industrial agriculture not only is sustainable, it is expandable.

Local sustainability also requires a stable economy and political structure to allow it to flourish. The infrastructure built in part by industrial agriculture allows pockets of sustainable agriculture to thrive undisturbed. You don’t see many Amish communities in Afghanistan, for instance. In fairness, a world of only sustainable agriculture would likely have less need for courts and roads and banks.

Sustainable agriculture also seems content, even obsessed with limiting production.  The underlying theme is of land being fragile and easily overburdened by modern technological methods, again with little data to verify this assertion. As yields climb, it is fair to ask, “Where are the signs of exhaustion?”

Sustainable agriculture also employs much more labor. Farmers who see a future of computers and machines are drawn to the job security of this alternative. Sustainability refers then to their lifestyle, not their farm.

Sustainable agriculture is not, in my view, about sustainability or agriculture. It is about trying to recover some perceived lost status for people who think lives are devalued by participating in an enormous economy. By drawing a tight circle around me and mine, and adopting pharisaical rules of correct practice, sustainable agriculture proponents try to ensure the moral spotlight shines only on them.