Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Understanding Sustainability

The term sustainability means whatever the person using it wants it to mean. The term's broad meaning has left room for many players to define the term. This is not necessarily a bad thing if it brings more people and industries to the table, however, the lack of a uniform meaning can often create confusion.

In surveying how corporate America has engaged in setting sustainability and corporate responsibility policies, I have been impressed with the ability to use the need to be sustainable as another important tool for good corporate governance and efficiency. Examples are everywhere of companies that embarked on sustainability programs and ended up saving money by finding excess waste they could avoid creating or materials that could be re-used or more efficiently sourced. For corporations like those on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, implementing sustainability policies ultimately meant focusing more on increasing efficiency, making internal communication more effective and learning how to do more with less.

It strikes me that many of these same lessons have been learned by many of the folks in agriculture - although they have not called it sustainability as such. The increasing demands of the marketplace have driven those who have become the most successful in the sector to be as efficient as possible in order to survive. This means that successful farmers realize the need to protect the quality of the land they manage since failing to do so returns less yield over time. Successful farmers also recognize the need to wisely manage the amount of water they use as well as the drive toward ever more use of precision agriculture to only apply fertilizer or pesticides where absolutely critical and at the right time. On the livestock side, successful operations recognize that when an animal is under stress from mistreatment, it does not gain weight efficiently, and therefore, fails to return the maximum profit on the investment. As a result, successful livestock operations have had a market reason to treat their animals well for some time.

This isn't to say that all farmers everywhere are already sustainable and there is no need for improvement. However, many of the most successful farming and ranching operations have earned their success because they realize that doing what is good for their land, their community and their bottom line are all inextricably linked. There are far more sustainable agricultural operations out there than the public knows about and this is becoming a problem. As marketing for "green products" continues at a break neck pace, consumers can often easily be confused by various competing claims about which product is made in the most environmentally and socially sustainable way.

A point I think is incredibly important as the sustainability issue continues to evolve is the need to keep our eye on global sustainability, not just "my backyard" sustainability. By this I mean that what is considered sustainable may change if we factor in developing countries and the nearly 3 billion extra people expected to join the planet by 2050. If that inescapable fact is considered, then it becomes even more important to keep large-scale, efficient agriculture in tact and thriving in the U.S. unless you want to see far greater losses of sensitive habitat like rainforests around the world. The fact of a growing population and finite resources and land also means that technology like genetic engineering can't be taken off the table as a tool for leading us to greater sustainability.

There is a bias by many in the environmental community to see all things "natural" as better than anything manmade. Yet if you really study biology and chemistry, you can see numerous examples of natural pesticides and natural chemicals that can cause harm when ingested in the wrong dosage, and to which we are far more likely to be exposed. The issue should not be natural vs synthetic, but what is the affect and what dosage is effective and safe vs what dosage causes harm. These should remain scientific, not political questions. The consequence of allowing bias to dictate policy is unintended consequences -- something we see so often in policymaking.

Here's hoping that those working to shape and influence consumers about sustainability take some time to think about the issue from a global perspective, rather than from their own parochial view. The world has too much at stake to rule out technologies and practices that can help us all live well and protect our environment and societies in the process

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