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Common sense sustainability?

Written by Jim Paulson Published on 31 Mar 2013


With the world population recently passing the seven billion mark, many questions have been asked concerning the ability of our planet to feed this growing population. It is predicted that in the next 40 years, two billion more people will be eating on Earth.

Can the U.S. and global agriculture produce enough food to feed the people of the world? Can forages and livestock be part of this? Will we count on technology to produce more food? Will we have to sacrifice the environment in order to achieve this?

Sustainability is the popular buzzword in media circles today. Sustainability comes from the Latin word sustinere (tenere, to hold – sus, up).

But what does sustainability mean to you and your farm business? Sustainability, by simple definition, is the ability to continue, endure or maintain.

Ask yourself, “Is there any part of my business or anything we are doing now that the next generation will not be able to?” Sustainability tends to value diversity in order to spread risk of failure and add chances of success. That is why we had diversified farms in the past. Survivability depended on it.

On individual farms, this may have been crucial to survivability and thus, sustainability. Economic sustainability is the most critical aspect of any business.

But to a food supply, it is the bigger picture that is most important. The picture of larger farms that are more labor- and equipment-efficient clashes with ideas of what a farm should look like. What should a family farm look like?

The shrinking rural population has forever changed towns, schools and churches. Rural sociologists ask if this is good for rural areas.

Some think sustainability is taking agriculture back 75 or 100 years. But it is more about looking 50 to 100 years into the future.

Sustainability has several aspects which sometimes lead to confusion as to what sustainable means – and makes defining it a “wicked problem.” What is a “wicked problem”?

In 1973, Rittel and Webber commented that there are problems than cannot be solved in the usual way of thinking. They called them wicked problems.

Wicked problems are hard to define. Sustainability often involves choices – choices that are not black and white, but better or worse. Sometimes we don’t even know we have a problem or what the problem is, which makes it very difficult to solve.

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Think of sustainability as illustrated by three circles in Figure 1.

The three circles are economics, environment and social. The area between the circles is the interaction of the reas.

As in a three-legged stool, for the greatest stability each leg has to be equal in length or contribution to supporting the whole system.

Let’s use different words to define the circles: It’s about people, the planet and profit.

The first priority of any business is to survive. Ultimately, in order to survive, a business has to be profitable over the long term.

Without generating a profit, no farm operation can sustain itself very long without an outside infusion of capital. This is the very situation that has been plaguing the dairy industry the last few years. With milk price below cost of production, it is only a matter of time and the farm is no longer sustainable.

Sustainability or survival comes down to net worth or amount of equity and the ability to borrow money. We also consider our financial sustainability for the future.

We may not have thought of it as sustainability, but expansion decisions are most likely about sustainability. If we want the farm to continue to the next generation, we need to grow to generate enough income. Very few farms are the same size as two generations ago.

The planet aspect of sustainability is just as important as profit because it is required to increase productivity with finite resources while meeting EPA regulations.

In the past couple of years, the planet portion of sustainability has been the main focus for much of the world – climate change, greenhouse gases and feeding the growing population.

Just what are greenhouse gases? Greenhouse gases are gases that hold heat in the atmosphere, which is the global warming potential.

Examples are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). The term carbon footprint is the amount of CO2 or CO2-equivalent produced by some activity.

Methane has 21 times the heat-holding capacity of carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide has 298 times the heat-holding capacity or global warming potential.

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Ruminant animals are scrutinized because they belch off methane while digesting feed.

Decomposing manure generates methane, which can be captured in digesters, but most is lost.

Incorporating manure reduces nitrous oxide emissions as well as reducing the smell and runoff potential.

The dairy industry has been active in doing LCA or life cycle analysis to determine its carbon footprint.

A life cycle analysis looks at the whole system of producing milk from the farm to the consumer.

Science has produced many research-based conclusions on how we can treat our environment.

We now know that soil conservation, minimum tillage, crop rotation and contour strips are important in crop production.

The Dust Bowl years demonstrated that farming practices then were not sustainable. We manage our manure to minimize runoff and capture as much of the fertilizer value as we can.

We may be doing this because it saves us money, but it is also the right thing to do. Will the next generation continue the same practices you do now?

Are there practices you could be doing now to reduce inputs, reduce energy consumption, reduce odor, reduce greenhouse gas emissions or reduce your carbon footprint?

The people segment is probably the least understood and the hardest to understand. It involves people on a society basis, rural and urban.

The research base here is different than what most have been used to, and the subject is sociology. The social leg also involves rules and regulations, written by people who are not farm people, on how we can treat the environment, animals and employees.

It is about what people think of what we do; it is about farm families and their personal values. It is about quality of life for everyone.

For example, we think that if a cow milks a lot, she must not be stressed. We think in terms of cow comfort, not animal welfare.

But others don’t ask if the cow is stressed or comfortable; They ask: How should an animal be treated? Recent occurrences in the public eye now have us trying to defend what we do.

Where is the agriculture industry heading with sustainability? I believe forages and livestock are an important part of a sustainable agriculture. Cattle need forage.

Forage provides crop diversity, minimizes erosion, breaks up weed cycles and lowers cost of production for ruminant livestock.

Cattle have the ability to utilize feeds that humans cannot while recycling nutrients in the farm system. We can improve soil health, fertility and soil organic matter while even reclaiming seemingly unusable areas around the globe. I would invite you to view an interesting video of a talk by Allan Savory.

We all need to do our part supplying policymakers with science-based information. We need to reach out to consumers with information on how we farm and why we do what we do.

We need to reach out to our neighbors to restore trust and community. And we need to figure out how we are going to feed a growing population in a way that keeps families in business while not compromising the ability of future generations to have the same opportunities, as well as being responsible for what we do.

Sustainable agriculture? Really? Really!  FG

Jim Paulson is a Extension educator with the University of Minnesota.

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