Day 27–What Is Sustainability?

Agriculture

The word “sustainability” is probably this year’s most overused buzzword. It must be the trendy replacement for “green”. Everyone from businesses to teachers are trying to be “sustainable” in what they do and how they do it. Or, at least, they say they are. Who knows what they are doing in practice.

And the same is true for farming and ranching. More farmers are using the “sustainable agriculture” term, but what exactly does that mean? And how will I know if they are really “sustainable” or just using the jargon as a marketing tool? I found myself getting a little muddled on the subject, so I started doing some research to clarify the issues for myself. And here is what I found.

Sustainable agriculture is “farming that provides a secure living for farm families; maintains the natural environment and resources; supports the rural community; and offers respect and fair treatment to all involved, from farm workers to consumers to the animals raised for food.” (www.sustainabletable.org)

While sustainable agriculture includes organic food production, it is a larger philosophy that promotes living wages for farmers and farm workers, healthy environments for humans and animals on the farm, caring for the land so it is not depleted of its richness and fertility, and reducing the carbon foot print of our food by encouraging consumers to buy as local as possible. Unlike the term “organic,” there is no certification for a farmer to be “sustainable.”

So, how do I know if a farmer is using sustainable agricultural practices or not? The Sustainable Table initiative offers loads of resources to help consumers, including lists of questions to ask farmers, produce managers, even grocery store workers. This is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about sustainable agriculture. It is offered by the Grace Communications Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to highlighting the connections between food, water and energy. Here is the link to their question sheets: http://www.sustainabletable.org/shop/questions/ 

Would a farmer lie about being sustainable? I can’t say “no”, but my guess is that the vast majority of farmers will be pretty upfront about how they grow their crops or raise their animals. The questions certainly help since they are very specific. If you get wishy-washy answers or defensive responses, keep moving!

I’m planning to take some of these questions to the farmer’s market tomorrow and see how it goes. I know this information has helped clarify things for me. I hope you find it useful as well!

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