Farmers Must Take the Lead on Sustainable Agricultural Development

I have seriously underestimated the sustainability of the term “sustainable development,” especially as it pertains to agriculture. I’ll make that mistake no more. This column explains why Ontario/Canadian farmers should not make that mistake either.

The column is quite lengthy. To reduce the time required for reading, casual readers can skip the last half which is largely about “what next?”, in contrast to the “what?” and “why?” in the first half.

Origins and evolution of “sustainable agriculture”

The term traces back to a very high-profile report called Our Common Future issued in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development of the United Nations, chaired by Ms. Gro Bruntland, former prime minister of Norway. The report was popularly called the “Bruntland Report” (by the “Bruntland Commission” or just “Bruntland” ). It stated,

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The commission extended the definition to include “in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor” and “limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.” The commission added,“technology and social organization can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth.”

This concept/definition made good sense then, and it does now, though the amount of baggage and self-serving verbiage added since 1987 has been enormous.

The report’s release was followed by an immediate and intense effort to link “sustainable development” to the largely anti-corporate, anti-technology agendas of many activist groups and marketers of so-called alternative products. Promoters of organic agriculture quickly labeled their industry as “sustainable agriculture” – ignoring those aspects of organic agriculture in conflict with the Bruntland definition – “in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor.” More on this later.

There are more than 83 million Google citations for “sustainable agriculture,” including more than three million sites with definitions. Many groups and individuals have modified Bruntland’s words – sometimes dramatically. For example, a National Geographic web site states, “Sustainable agriculture takes many forms, but at its core is a rejection of the industrial approach to food production developed during the 20th century.” (The National Geographic web site contains other material on sustainable agriculture; the author says she “lives on a hobby farm, direct-markets organic produce to local restaurants.”)

The net result? Sustainable agriculture has come to mean cult agriculture in the minds of many. To quote National Geographic again, “The concept of sustainable agriculture embraces a wide range of techniques, including organic, free-range, low-input, holistic, and biodynamic.”

Even the entry of some mainstream institutions into this realm – for example “sustainable agriculture” institutes and/or degree programs at several universities – have not changed this image: sustainable agriculture usually means agriculture with lower inputs of energy-and chemical-intensive fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, fuel, capital, “unnatural” seeds, etc. This
generally means lower productivity, higher costs, and higher-priced food, which may be attractive to some of the well-fed and affluent, but far from the Bruntland vision.

It’s no doubt because of this that many in mainstream agriculture, myself included, have avoided the hype about “sustainable agriculture.” We felt we were too busy doing other important things, like producing ever increasing quantities of quality food ingredients at ever-declining real costs of production – and helping farmers survive financially in an increasingly competitive world marketplace. We also thought we had good environmental initiatives of our own – like Ontario’s Environmental Farm Plans, Farm and Food Care, and others.

Food retailers and sustainability

All of this has changed in very recent years as major food companies have sought to link the word “sustainable” to the various food, agriculture and other functions/services (eg., packaging) with which they are associated.

The push started in Europe in 1997 with major food retailers and manufacturers subscribing to a series of standards of a coalition now called GlobalG.A.P. The “G.A.P.” stands for “Good Agricultural Practice.” The coalition now has hundreds of members in food manufacturing and distribution businesses and an array of approved production and handling requirements. See, especially the membership listing.

Another large consortium called the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (, begun 10 years ago by some European and global food manufacturers, sets standards for sustainable agriculture with a membership of processors only. (Others can be associate members). Canada’s McCain Foods Ltd. is now represented on the executive committee.

A North American grouping called The Sustainability Consortium (, though created only in 2009, now has more than 100 members. Walmart is the largest participant but the membership contains many other global giants. The Sustainability Consortium involves more than food and agriculture.

These three groups, while huge, are only a part of what’s going on. Many individual companies are developing their own standards/protocols – very often in response to targeted pressure (and sometimes support) from activist groups.  Check , for example, or , or .

In the published memberships of these coalitions, I see some environmental groups but almost no farm groups. The Environmental Defense Fund has a full-time person at Walmart’s head office in Arkansas.

As I write this, a major meeting is imminent or underway in Singapore about the further imposition of sustainability standards for palm oil, driven in part by Walmart and UK-based vegetable-oil giant, Unilever. The Canola Council of Canada is working hard to ensure that Canadian canola oil meets European standards for “sustainability” for use in making European biodiesel. At what point does this expand to include corn, soybeans and wheat used for food and fuel production in Canada?

If you don’t think this can happen, consider gestation cages for sows. (These are small, individual pens in which pregnant female pigs are confined before giving birth. These are different from the small “farrowing” pens in which sows are confined immediately after birthing; the latter are considered necessary to prevent nursing baby pigs from being crushed by their mothers.) Farmers are being driven to abandon this practice – first in Europe and now in North America – by the dictates of food retailers. And while this is being driven by an animal welfare agenda, not sustainability per se, the two are tightly associated in the views of many.

The European leadership in this realm is of special significance to those of us in agriculture associated with GM crops (corn, soybeans, canola, to name three). GlobalG.A.P. standards are very detailed on what must be done on labeling and blending of GM and non-GM crops and ingredients (a marked contrast with the near absence of provisions to avoid contamination with manure!). Swiss-based Nestlé was quoted recently as saying it saw no significant role for GM technology in its vision of sustainability.

What should Ontario farmers do?

So as farmers – especially those of us in grain farming – what can we and our organizations do to have influence on the future? If we don’t lead, we’ll be led. Even though many farm groups elsewhere seem to be opting for “being led”, Ontario farmers can be different. We’ve been global leaders on other environmentally related issues before.

As starters, I suggest the following:

1.    Acknowledge that sustainable agriculture is a societal high priority and likely to become more so.

2.     Get involved with food-industry-based sustainability coalitions. Be very selective in this process as too much time could be wasted with groups which seem to be more about anti-corporate advocacy than sustainability itself.

3.    Be vocal in an informed way about misguided efforts by groups that seek to detract from the vision of the Bruntland Commission – and/or use “sustainability” for self-promotion.

4.    Be open in talking about and addressing aspects of modern agricultural practices which cannot be considered very sustainable, and champions of those which are.

5.    Be cautious in relying too much on the use of short-term public opinion and polling in determining priorities for sustainable development, as these commonly depend more on media whims and the advocacy of special interest groups, than fundamentals. Good science and sound economics must be key policy drivers.

6.    Develop a strategy in cooperation with other farm groups, government agencies, conservation and credible environmental groups on how to enhance sustainability, with this including research, outreach, partnerships, and measures which might be included in food processing/retailing standards.

7.    Build on Ontario’s globally recognized Environmental Farm Plans, while recognizing that these plans are only part of a process.

8.    Emphasize communications, both within and beyond the farm sector, and build on capacities which farm groups already have.

9.    Make sure the scope is broad. Sustainability is certainly about what a farmer does with water, soil, inputs, emissions, protection of biodiversity and natural areas, and waste management on the individual farm. But it is also about ensuring an adequate supply of high quality and reasonably priced food to feed a global population expected to exceed nine billion by 2050 – while using renewable plant material to enhance global supplies of fuels, plastics, and other industrial and consumer products. It’s about allowing/encouraging poor countries of the world to produce more of their own food supplies. (There are lots of opportunities for agri-food exports without undermining developing-world agriculture.) It is also about ensuring that the above can be met while also permitting farm families to have the same level/standard of living as their nonfarm counterparts.

10.    Recognize that this is an ongoing, never-ending process. What represents great achievement in one year becomes the base for improvement the following year.

The days/years since early 2008, when stock markets and global economies first weakened have been highly instructive to me. The world has dealt with high unemployment, fiscal disasters of major magnitude, serious crop failures, spiking and plunging commodity prices, and more. Yet, the push for sustainable development has continued. Think what it will be as economies and agriculture/farm and food markets return to more “normal” levels of volatility. (I believe they will. Others, I know, differ.)

What can we hope to accomplish?

We cannot expect that any concerted effort by Ontario/Canadian farmers can change the agenda for either anti-corporate groups or advocates of low-input and organic agriculture. But we do have an opportunity to interact with and have a major influence on food processors and retailers in Canada trying to find their own way through what is both a mine field and an opportunity. Major food companies know that we cannot feed a hungry world – let alone most Canadians – with high-priced, limited-output agriculture.

The biggest problem/risk is that food company executives do not know much about specific agricultural practices and can be easily misled by skilled and sometimes-charming activists who promote practices which may be anything but sustainable. A concerted effort by main-stream Canadian farmers to present their position – especially if it is the result of a well-developed strategy/initiative on agricultural sustainability – could be very effective. This is especially true in Canada where “sustainable agriculture” standards within the entire food chain are much less developed than in many other countries.

Some specific issues

I close this column with comments on some specific issues. The first of these is organic agriculture and the claim by proponents that it represents the epitome of sustainable agriculture. For sure, there are aspects of organic technology which are very sustainable – the focus on maintaining soil organic matter and the use of legumes to supply nitrogen are examples. But organic farmers sure do a lot of soil tillage using fossil fuels. Their management of soil phosphate fertility is very problematic. Organic pesticides can be just as hazardous, if misused, as synthetic pesticides, and some organic pesticides are heavy metals. Control over contamination by coliform bacteria seems too casual in organic standards, and people have died in recent years as a result. Most of all, because of associated higher costs and lower yields, organic is more suited to supplying affluent consumers and high-end restaurants, than for feeding nine billion people, most of them very poor.

Allaying phobias about transgenic crop (GM) modification must figure highly in any strategy. The science is clear enough – that this represents a credible, indeed desirable, means of improving resistance to pests, crop quality and composition, while improving yields and lowering production costs. No one has ever been sick as a direct result of the consumption of approved GM crops. (Contrast this with recent deaths caused by manure-contaminated organic spinach and sprouts.) Yet the vast majority of sustainable agriculture web sites state that sustainable agriculture means no GM crops. This is an irrationality which modern agriculture has to counter if it is to ensure a vision of agricultural sustainability based on solid science and economics rather than anti-technology hype. Given the critical potential for GM technology to help feed a growing human population, this is an issue which proponents of true agricultural sustainability need to support aggressively.

Another comment relates to a common view that low-input agriculture is more sustainable. There is no debate about the importance of efficiency of input usage – how to produce more from less, especially when it does not mean practices like “mining the soil” (reducing inherent fertility levels) as a means for reducing fertilizer inputs. But if low input means low output, then it’s inconsistent with the need to increase global food supply.

Finally, there’s the matter of developing formal standards. This is a process which can consume massive amounts of time in committee discussions – a potential sinkhole for farm organizations with limited resources and many competing needs for their time. It’s difficult to provide simple advice. Farm groups need to be in the loop, to ensure that their perspectives are heard and respected, but not sucked into endless debates about minutia.

The route to sustainable agricultural development is neither simple nor without controversy. But the risks to farmers from not becoming important/leading players in decision-making process are huge. Do we want sustainable agricultural practices to be developed/defined using real-world experience and farmer know-how, or solely in urban boardrooms of large food companies trying to appease single-issue activists?