Monday, March 26, 2007

Sustainability

Many people are waving the flag of sustainable agriculture these days. In particular, we hear it mentioned more & more often in regards to viticulture and wine production.

But what exactly does it mean, and how does it shape our agricultural practices?


"It's easy to understand why key individuals and organizations in agriculture have flocked to this term. After all, who would advocate a 'non-sustainable agriculture?'" [Charles A. Francis, "Sustainable Agriculture: Myths and Realities," Journal of Sustainable Agriculture (1990) 1(1): p.97].
Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms

Rightly observed seventeen years ago, the allure of the term alone makes it something which most people would assume is a good thing without asking what it entails. Note that I’m not knocking it – in fact the ideal of the sustainable philosophy is something we should all strive for - but this subject needs a little more light on it, as Biodynamic producers (and some media advocates of BioD) continue to claim that they practice the most sustainable form of agriculture. An interesting claim to make when decades of studies have merely reinforced the notion that the organic foundation of biodynamics is what makes it effective, and not the preparations, the “cosmoculture”, nor the celestial calendars they use. Perhaps they are making that claim based solely on BioD’s prohibition of all pesticides? even the naturally occurring ones? Hmmmm…..

Unfortunately, the concept of sustainable agriculture is somewhat nebulous – even 15 years after the NGO Sustainable Agriculture Treaty of 1992. But the majority of definitions seem to agree on a few core topics:

§ Reduce use of synthetic agrochemicals
§ Reduce the risk of waterway pollution
§ Conserving natural resources and energy
§ Promote responsible use of fertilizers and pesticides
§ Minimize environmental impacts of agriculture

After that, definitions start to vary quite a bit. And nowhere in the mainstream definitions do we see a prohibition of all fertilizers or pesticides. Why?

Here’s a list of what we see on the major points:

Interesting, eh? Note that Sustainable and Conventional are identical in that there isn’t anything actually prohibited as far as sources of agricultural inputs. IPM (Integrated Pest Management) isn’t prohibited either by any of the three systems, or by the Sustainable philosophy (except where the use of pesticides would be prohibited under the system in question).

But perhaps a few working definitions of the three systems are in order…

CONVENTIONAL

This is the standard 20th century agriculture. Nothing (originally) was prohibited form being used, and over time laws were put in place to prevent the greatest threats from products that later turned out to be too broad-spectrum or too long-lasting.

Much maligned for early abuses, the system as a whole also suffers from public perceptions that it’s the cause of such environmental damages as waterway and stream pollution from pesticides, fertilizers, and “factory farm” waste runoff. While the indiscriminant use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides HAS been a contributor to this problem, the “factory farm” (e.g., large concentrated feedlots with poor sanitation and living conditions for the animals in general) is wrongly attributed in the public eye solely to Conventional Ag.

While I believe that those runoff and living condition problems are very real, they represent an extreme of the conventional ideology which has largely been exploited by bigger farming operations. This of course, is the crux of the objection to Conventional Ag, as concerned people point out the need for farms to be profitable and the (potentially) large amounts of capital spent for those synthetic pesticides and fertilizers – a need to grow the operation and maximize the return by using a larger scale (the much dreaded “scale of economy”). The Government has been somewhat successful at combating those problems, but they haven’t been eliminated yet.

As for pesticide residues, they are regulated by the Government (FDA) and those limits should represent a fair consensus of what research has shown to be safe. Still, objections are made appealing to the paranoia (perhaps correctly) that big business interests have somehow corrupted the system at the consumers’ expense.

ORGANIC

Improving on the Conventional perspective, Organic eliminates the reliance on synthetic chemicals, and substitutes a more holistic view of the farm within its environment.

As such, runoff from synthetic chemicals is essentially eliminated. But note that runoff problems (erosion, manure, etc) may still exist.

With a reliance on compost, crop rotation, and better tilling practices, Organic provides the best system to date which balances the need for production and environmental preservation. Naturally occurring pesticides (B.thuringenesis, rotenone, etc) and fertilizers (compost, guano, etc) can still be used. This allows the farmers some protection from pests without the reliance on synthetic chemistry and hopefully a more specific effect. Pesticide residues are still regulated by the Government.

More flavorful food is one of the effects most touted by the Organic quarter, though some research has shown the improved flavor may be due more to the “local” nature of most organic production to date. Generally the produce isn’t shipped as far, and is consumed before too much time has elapsed since picking. As more large farms are converting to Organic, the hardcore natural (“Green”) movement is decrying this as an attempt by big business to cash in on (and corrupt) a good idea. However, I would wonder out loud if perhaps that scenario isn't such a bad thing after all...

...unless of course they are forming large “factory farms” (e.g., large concentrated feedlots with poor sanitation and living conditions for the animals in general) where overcrowding and other factors produce waste runoff which pollutes waterways or otherwise unnecessarily degrades the environment...etc.

BIODYNAMIC

Eschewing all natural and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, Biodynamic (BioD) relies on a cosmic philosophy to keep pests at bay and fertility at its peak. Created by Rudolf Steiner in 1923, the system has taken many years to reach it's current acceptance but still struggles with the same issues of clarity and logical idea flow that hindered it when first revealed. That being said, the agricultural base is that of Organic, when stripped of all of the cosmic trappings.

Personally, I think any system which totally prohibits any fertilizers or pesticides – even naturally occurring ones – is myopic at best. With a constantly increasing world population, this civilization we have is more prone than ever to ravages brought about by drought, failed harvests, insect pressures, or even just reduced yields in one geographic location or another. And while the utopian dream of having a world free of any manipulation is admirable, it is not remotely realistic…not without putting all of Humanity at great risk. (Don't even get me started about the potential curveballs that global warming could throw us to exacerbate our sometimes tenuous existence...)

BioD’s main tenet is exactly that, and makes it unacceptably naïve from a long-term perspective (all of its other naïveté aside). Another thought about limitations brought about by adopting BioD is that “[s]ustainable agriculture does not mean a return to either the low yields or poor farmers that characterized the 19th century. Rather, sustainability builds on current agricultural achievements, adopting a sophisticated approach that can maintain high yields and farm profits without undermining the resources on which agriculture depends.” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1999 – see link)

With BioD’s possibly erroneous emphasis on low yields (see my yields-quality post), one has to wonder where it will possibly put us if it were adopted across agriculture as a whole. Would there be a lower profit margin for farmers as they have less produce to sell, and higher prices for consumers? That’s something which could cripple emerging countries as well as condemn them to endless cycles of starvation…and would the current position that irrigation is taboo also hurt us with the possible changing weather brought about by global warming? (Point in fact, Steiner never prohibits higher yields in his agriculture lectures, he merely prohibits achieving them via modern fertilizers…
He also never prohibits irrigation. In fact, I don’t recall him ever mentioning it at all in his lectures. But somehow the modernized application of BioD adopts low yields and dry farming as signatures, at the very least within context of the viticultural movement. Another late addition to BioD is the prohibition of GMO’s, which again Steiner never envisioned.)

In the end, BioD is no guarantee that the system won't be applied on such a large scale as to produce some of the same problems that any "factory farm" might produce. And lastly, any system can cause runoff problems from improper fertilization or manure storage...

Where SUSTAINABILITY fits in...

Sustainability offers something flexible enough to be used in both the developed and emerging worlds: adaptability to various social and economic pressures while promoting well thought out usage and minimal long term effects.

All agriculture is in some way an invasive and destructive act, even while it creates food and textiles for our civilization. And that includes BioD agriculture (the very thing it proposes to promote is somehow lost when we extrapolate to its logical end).

Sustainable philosophy doesn’t lead to artificially low yields, overly high prices for consumers, or to starvation of the farmers. What the Sustainable philosophy preaches is responsible use of resources in our drive for production, while striving for an equitable exchange of goods - regardless of farming system employed.

From that platform, one can start to make some reasoned decisions about what practices to use that will allow the best protections of the environment without placing modern civilization in peril.

**********

Arm yourselves with knowledge! Read more here:

USDA: Sustainability publications list

The Wine Institute : Sustainability values statement

The Wine Institute : Benefits of Sustainability

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Dino said...

Crop rotation is central to sustainable agricultural practices (see the Union of Concerned Scientists discussion here: http://www.ucsusa.org/food_
and_environment/sustainable_
food/the-sustainable-approach-
to-agriculture.html).

Crop rotation controls insect pests by taking away their food. Rotation replenishes the soil more thoroughly than co-cropping. Grape farming is a monoculture. I don't think anyone has even attempted to prove that monocropping is sustainable. Has anyone ever pulled up their Premier Cru vineyard to plant legumes?

March 30, 2007 4:53 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Dino,

...well, no that's not feasible. But consider this - there are plenty of examples of vineyards that have been in continuous production for well over the century mark, and many vineyard sites which may have had grapes being grown on them possibly for millennia. Which leads us to another question: how many years do we need to look into the future to assess sustainability? 25 years? 50? 100?....and will the system we study need to maintain 100% productivity, or would 99.5% of the original production level over a long period qualify? etc....

Difficult to lay out solid criteria for that when definitions still are all over the board. But although co-cropping (aka cover-cropping in this discussion) may not be as efficient as rotation, I think we could infer that there are no major drawbacks to the view of grapes being able to produce for quite long periods of time without being rotated out.

(Of course, the ultimate ideal of sustainability is to mitigate & reduce the impacts of our farming practices while we continue to meet our culture's production needs.)

In this context, I don't see monocropping as the issue: "sustainable agriculture" is being used more as a label for "appropriate stewardship of the land in agricultural production". And as I pointed out, definitions of just what "sustainability" means vary quite a bit in the details.
My attempt was to show that anyone claiming the vanguard in sustainability for a single ag system was really just throwing out a red herring because of that.

Cheers,
V

April 02, 2007 5:59 AM  

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