By Jimi Patalano, Communications Intern, AFOP
Recently, sustainability has become a buzzword in a variety of fields and industries—energy, manufacturing, and transportation are a few noteworthy examples. Widespread realization of the looming dangers of climate change to the economy, the environment, human health, and national security are probably behind this. The USDA said in a recent report that coming climate change poses “unprecedented challenges to U.S. agriculture.” Certainly, the prospect of significantly higher summer temperatures should be concerning to farmworkers and those interested in their welfare.
Many modern industrial agriculture techniques contribute to climate change by causing emissions of several important greenhouse gases (as evidenced in this report, pages 12-18). In addition to climate change, normal industrial agricultural practices in the United States contribute to soil erosion, and may be implicated in water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and declining honeybee populations. This loss of resources should be of concern to all of us as it threatens our country’s ability to produce food in the future. Industrial agriculture has been shown to have negative effects on public health by creating pesticide contamination and antibiotic resistance. All of this has led many farmers, scientists and consumers to the conclusion that agriculture as it is practiced in the United States today cannot continue for much longer, and must soon be replaced by sustainable methods.
What exactly is “sustainability”? In a 1987 report for the World Commission on Environment and Development, “sustainable development” was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This emphasis on meeting human needs now and in the future has become key to the general definition of sustainability. Sustainability is considered to rest on three pillars, each of which is a crucial ingredient without which a system cannot truly be called sustainable. These pillars are:
- Economic growth
- Environmental protection
- Social equity
Sustainability is applicable to many areas, including agriculture, but also manufacturing, transportation, and energy production. It is a point of intense research and debate currently and there is certainly much we don’t know about it. To evaluate and discuss sustainability, thinking about it from a holistic perspective is necessary. This approach is recognized as systems thinking, a process that involves considering complex interactions between numerous entities. For example, food crops are produced by a system that includes the soil, insects, animals, precipitation, microbes, and humans. Another example of systems thinking in sustainability involves considering the interactions between the economic, political, scientific, and cultural spheres.
It’s important to understand that the term “sustainable agriculture” refers to a wide and varied field of different approaches. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, because the ecology and the economy vary from place to place. Sustainable agriculture is not just hypothetical. It is being used successfully in a variety of locations. Fortunately, transitioning to sustainable agriculture in the United States and Latin America provides significant opportunities to improve the conditions of those who do the hard work that underlies crop production.
In Latin America, the Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (MCAC) has demonstrated that the implementation of sustainable agricultural can occur in a way that benefits rural economies of smallholders. Agroecology is the name for the practices spread through MCAC’s decentralized, horizontal “small farmer-to-small farmer” teaching-learning networks. Specifically, agroecology refers to the application of place-specific ecological knowledge in agriculture and results in smallholder operations that are economically and environmentally sustainable. MCAC’s approach differs sharply from state-based approaches that try to diffuse knowledge from centralized sources. The system of horizontal farmer-to-farmer knowledge-sharing can empower small farmers in Mexico and other Latin American countries, strengthen communities, and increase viability of small, independent farms. If adopted on a wide scale, advocates say this could lead to a reduced pressure to emigrate, reducing the supply of ultra-cheap, exploitable agricultural labor in the United States, which both strengthens the position of the farmworkers who are here and weakens business-as-usual agriculture in the United States—a win for sustainability and labor. The same farmer-to-farmer networks, which so far have been used strictly to share agroecological knowledge, could become a political force for structural change by sharing economic and political knowledge as well.
Sustainable agriculture experts in the United States, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, argue the highly concentrated agriculture industry is incapable of switching to agricultural practices that are truly sustainable. This vision of agriculture imagines an end to the current highly concentrated state of the industry, in which a tiny fraction of the total number of U.S. farms produce most of the food, and a return to the days when the norm was small and medium growers who lived on their farm and had a deep relationship to the land.
In this scenario, farms would require a larger workforce of skilled labor, because growing crops sustainably requires more knowledge, attention, and care than the “assembly-line” techniques of today. The industrial model of agriculture used to grow most crops in the United States often entails enormous fields of a single, annual species, large quantities of pesticides and artificial fertilizer, and off-site management.
In contrast, sustainable agriculture treats a farm like what it is—an ecosystem. It often involves planting different kinds of plants together, sparking interactions that reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizer. The industrial model may be more efficient when huge amounts of farmland are owned by one company and the costs of externalities–like dying rural economies, soil and water depletion, and public health costs from climate change and pollution are not paid for. The sustainable model, however, actually produces more food per dollar when these costs—which are measurable—are taken into account. In addition, if most crops were produced on small or medium farms, agriculture would employ more skilled labor and operate more efficiently.
Experts believe this transition will never happen if the large agribusiness companies that have come to control most of the market continue to make record profits and hold powerful political sway. The high profitability of these concentrated, industrial agricultural companies is dependent on paying farmworkers poverty-level wages. So by fighting for improved conditions and higher wages for farmworkers, we are fighting for more sustainable agriculture, and vice versa.
The story of sustainable agriculture and the consequences of its implementation is as large and multifaceted as an ecosystem itself. Nonetheless, due to the very serious issues outlined at the beginning of this article, and the many solutions provided by sustainability, it is a story to which all of us may soon need to pay more attention.