Sustainability in the production, transport, processing, and sale of food – sometimes called farm-to-plate – is a concept that has created major programs at all levels along the food chain. But what it actually means and how it can or should be accomplished can vary from the perspectives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), giant retailers such as Walmart Stores, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) – an alliance of “grassroots” organizations – global alliances such as The Sustainability Consortium® (TSC®), and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
According to federal law (U.S. Code Title 7, Section 3103), sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of plant and animal production practices with long-term, site-specific goals to:
- Satisfy human food and fiber needs
- Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
- Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
- Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
- Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole
“Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, stewardship of both natural and human resources is of prime importance,” according to the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. “A systems perspective is essential to understanding sustainability. The system is envisioned in its broadest sense, from the individual farm to the local ecosystem and to communities affected by this farming system, both locally and globally.
“An emphasis on the system allows a larger and more thorough view of the consequences of farming practices on both human communities and the environment. A systems approach gives us the tools to explore the interconnections between farming and other aspects of our environment. A systems approach also implies interdisciplinary efforts in research and education. This requires not only the input of researchers from various disciplines, but also farmers, farm workers, consumers, policymakers and others.”
In his book Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction, published by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, NCAT program specialist Richard Earles defines sustainable agriculture as the production of abundant food without depleting the Earth’s resources or polluting the environment:
“It is agriculture that follows the principles of nature to develop systems for raising crops and livestock that are, like nature, self-sustaining. Sustainable agriculture is also the agriculture of social values, one whose success is indistinguishable from vibrant rural communities, rich lives for families on the farms and wholesome food for everyone. But in the first decade of the 21st Century, sustainable agriculture, as a set of commonly accepted practices or a model farm economy, is still in its infancy – more than an idea, but only just,” he wrote.
“Although sustainability in agriculture is tied to broader issues of the global economy, declining petroleum reserves and domestic food security, its midwives were not government policymakers but small farmers, environmentalists and a persistent cadre of agricultural scientists. These people saw the devastation that late 20th Century farming was causing to the very means of agricultural production – the water and soil – and so began a search for better ways to farm, an exploration that continues to this day.”
To achieve true sustainability, he postulates, the United States – and global agriculture, in general – must abandon the industrial production model adopted in the 20th century that created a “vertically integrated agri-business.” While that resulted in abundant, cheap food for U.S. consumers in the short term, it failed to acknowledge farms as biological systems, and rather treated them as mechanical, resulting in high production at the expense of degraded soil and water, reduced biodiversity necessary to food security, an increased dependence on imported oil, and more farm acreage moving from family farms to “Big Ag,” crippling rural communities in the process.
“In recent decades, sustainable farmers and researchers around the world have responded to the extractive industrial model with ecology-based approaches, variously called natural, organic, low-input, alternative, regenerative, holistic, biodynamic, biointensive and biological farming systems,” Earles wrote. “All of them, representing thousands of farms, have contributed to our understanding of what sustainable systems are. And each of them shares a vision of ‘farming with nature,’ an agro-ecology that promotes biodiversity, recycles plant nutrients, protects soil from erosion, conserves and protects water, uses minimum tillage and integrates crop and livestock enterprises on the farm.”
One approach to eco-friendly, year-round crop production is the “high tunnel” – essentially, an unheated greenhouse with a high roof, ranging from as small as 1,000 square feet to up to 20-plus acres. Using natural sunlight to modify the internal environment, high tunnels can be used to extend the growing season for fruits and vegetables, improving production stability by reducing the risk of crop failure due to bad weather, insects, water shortages, etc.
The USDA supports that approach through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s voluntary Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, which helps producers improve plant, soil, and air quality and reduce nutrient, pesticide, and energy use while providing consumers with locally grown fresh produce. Since 2009, USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service has helped producers nationwide build nearly 10,000 high tunnels.
Walmart, one of the world’s largest food retailers, has created its own sustainability program and enlisted more than a dozen other corporations, environmental groups, farmers organizations, and investment companies – representing some $100 billion in Walmart sales – to collaborate on efforts from environmentally sound food production to better overall proficiencies to recycling.
“Walmart and our suppliers recognize that collaboration is the key to bringing sustainable solutions to all of our customers,” company president and CEO Doug McMillon told those groups at Walmart’s inaugural Sustainable Product Expo in April 2014. “A great deal of innovative work is happening every day, but there are still too many gaps and missed opportunities. Today’s commitments are about creating real systems change from one end of the supply chain to the other – meaning how products are grown and made, how they’re transported and sold, and how we touch the lives of people along the way.”
Those joining the Walmart effort include:
- Campbell Soup
- Conservation International
- Dairy Farmers of America
- Environmental Defense Fund
- General Mills
- Goldman Sachs
- Johnson & Johnson
- Kellogg Company
- Keurig Green Mountain
- Procter & Gamble
- World Wildlife Fund
“No one should have to choose between products that are sustainable and products they can afford,” Manuel Gomez, Walmart’s vice president of sustainability, added. “We want to make sustainability easy by taking the guesswork out of values-based shopping. Accessibility and transparency really put the customer in the driver’s seat.”
TSC, a self-described “organization of diverse global participants that work collaboratively to build a scientific foundation that drives innovation to improve consumer product sustainability,” sees sustainable agriculture as a global concern. On its website, it identifies “drivers and needs for more sustainable products and standardization,” which include scientifically grounded and transparent data and methodologies, helping consumers make informed decisions, setting lifecycle sustainability measurement standards for producers, evaluating both the costs and benefits of new regulations, bringing multinational corporations to a harmonized approach, and improving understanding of and efforts related to environmental conditions in every nation.
“TSC informs decision-makers on product sustainability throughout the entire product life cycle across all sectors,” according to the organization’s website. “The Consortium creates scale as it represents 100+ of the world’s largest organizations, working together to create pre-competitive, cross-sector solutions. Sector and Consortium Working Groups … work together to create sustainability-related knowledge about particular product categories, continuously adding to the scope of products covered by our Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System.”
The Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System is “a standardized framework for the communication of sustainability-related information throughout the product value chain.” By using this tool, the TSC website states, “companies can improve the quality of decision-making about product sustainability and design better products. They have the opportunity to effectively manage the sustainability of upstream supplies and suppliers, while communicating product sustainability downstream to consumers.”
In calling for a new vision for U.S. agriculture, the UCS claims the path the nation has been on “is a dead end” that damages the environment, harms rural communities, and limits future productivity. Historically, those same elements combined to bring down past great civilizations, from the Egyptian Old Kingdom to the Maya to the Mississippians (aka Mound Builders) of North America, who flourished between 900 and 1450 A.D.
“Farmers and scientists are transforming U.S. agriculture in a more sustainable direction – and smart policies can help speed the transition,” the organization said. “But federal farm policy still stacks the deck in favor of outdated industrial methods. Smart new policies and investments can help level the playing field and give healthy farms a chance to thrive.”
To help achieve its goals, the UCS has launched a petition drive calling on the president to establish a National Food Policy.
“We recognize that food is at the center of many of the critical issues of our time – public health, water and air quality, labor and immigration, climate change, racial and economic inequality, and ultimately the nation’s food security and socioeconomic prospects,” the petition states. “It’s time for a major shift: we need a comprehensive policy solution that will nourish consumers, expand opportunities for farmers, and protect workers, natural resources, and the environment from exploitation.”
The UCS said that shift from industrial food production to agro-ecological agriculture – “healthy farms” – would include four major approaches:
“Landscape – Integrating uncultivated areas helps preserve biodiversity, reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides and increasing productivity.
Integrating Crops and Livestock – Plants and animals are good for each other. A healthy farm takes advantage of this by recycling nutrients in the form of manure.
Crop Diversity and Rotation – Growing a variety of different crops increases soil fertility and reduces the need for pesticides.”
Cover Crops – Blanketing bare fields with cover crops in between cash crop plantings is just what the doctor ordered for healthy soil, recycling nutrients, and reducing weeds and pests.”
Meanwhile, NSAC called the new Farm Bill “a mixed bag for sustainable food and farming systems” that included some elements supported by the organization, but ignored others.
“The bill invests over $1.2 billion over the next five years in the innovative programs for beginning farmers, local food, organic agriculture, rural development and specialty crops that were left in the dust for the past year,” according to the NSAC blog. “The bill also reconnects crop insurance subsidies to basic conservation requirements and rejects a series of harmful fair competition, environmental and commerce riders. Despite these highlights, the bill fails to reform farm commodity and crop insurance subsidies and continues the regime of uncapped, unlimited payments.”
In a Dec. 11, 2014 blog post, NSAC was even more critical of the final annual appropriations bill released by Congress two days earlier: “Overall, it’s bleak news for sustainable agriculture – complete with drastic cuts to critical conservation programs and anti-farmer policy riders that favor big livestock integrators over actual farmers … Of the trillion dollars in newly appropriated funds for 2015, $20.6 billion (or roughly 2 percent) is directed to fund food, farm, and rural development programs administered by USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This level is a cut of $305 million below last year’s funding.
“The 2014 Farm Bill cut $4 billion from voluntary conservation assistance programs, or over $6 billion when accounting for sequestration. The new spending bill … piles on, taking nearly $600 million more, primarily from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). … The bill contains a noxious legislative rider preventing USDA from implementing basic common sense protections for family farms that raise livestock and poultry for multinational meat companies. … On the whole, the new bill increases funding and resources for USDA’s farm programs and loan-making agency, but misses the opportunity to jump-start and expand investments in innovative programs aimed at beginning farmers and rural entrepreneurs.”
USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” (KYF2) is touted as a key part of the government effort to strengthen local and regional food systems, including supporting a growing number of small and niche farmers, many selling directly to consumers or local markets rather than to major food companies.
“A surge in consumer demand for locally produced food is creating jobs and opportunity throughout rural America. Beginning farmers are finding an entry point into agriculture through local markets. Experienced farmers are diversifying their sales to capture added value through local branding. Small businesses are developing new packing, processing, distribution and retail opportunities. And consumers are learning more about where their food comes from and gaining access to fresh, local foods,” according to the KYF2 mission statement.
“Local and regional food is already a multi-billion dollar market and growing quickly. … Local and regional markets often provide farmers with a higher share of the food dollar, and money spent at a local business often continues to circulate within [the] community, creating a multiplier effect and providing greater economic benefits to the area. Our mission is to support the critical connection between farmers and consumers and to strengthen USDA’s support for local and regional food systems.”
According to the KYF2 website, through this effort, the USDA seeks to develop integrated programs and policies that:
- Stimulate food- and agriculturally based community economic development;
- Foster new opportunities for farmers and ranchers;
- Promote locally and regionally produced and processed foods;
- Cultivate healthy eating habits and educated, empowered consumers;
- Expand access to affordable fresh and local food; and
- Demonstrate the connection between food, agriculture, community and the environment.
KYF2 has partnered with a number of government and private organizations, including USDA’s People’s Garden Initiative to foster individual gardens worldwide, Agriculture in the Classroom to improve agricultural literacy among K-12 teachers and their students, and NCAT’s Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA).
Calling 2014 “a year of action, partnership and innovation at USDA” in his Dec. 22 blog post, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack cited what he called a “small snapshot” of department efforts, many directed at or in some way supporting agricultural sustainability, including:
- moving more than $4.3 billion in critical disaster assistance to thousands of producers
- answering nearly 1.3 million questions to help consumers stay food-safe
- making 340 investments in local food infrastructure and launching a series of new web directories designed to connect consumers with farmers’ markets, on-farm markets, and food hubs
- providing more than 3,500 microloans to help beginning and veteran farmers grow their businesses
- lessening the threat of wildfires to communities by treating 1.7 million acres of forest land
As evidenced by Walmart, NSAC, TSC, UCS, multiple state university and government sustainability programs, USDA efforts, etc., in recent years, people at every stage of the U.S. food chain, from farmers to consumers, have begun to pursue concepts, processes, and systems to better define and implement sustainable agriculture.
“Little by little – one crop, one field, one family at a time – sustainable farming is taking root,” according to Earles. “Off the farm, consumers and grassroots activists are working to create local markets and farm policies that support sustainable practices. They are working to raise consumers’ awareness about how their food is grown and processed – how plants, animals, the soil and the water are treated.
“And they are working to forge stronger bonds between producers and consumers that will, in time, cement the foundations of locally and regionally self-sufficient food systems. In contrast to mono-cropped industrial megafarms that ship throughout the world, the vision of sustainable agriculture’s futurists is small to mid-size diversified farms supplying the majority of their region’s food.”
Caption for top photo: A display of locally grown produce in a Walmart store. In October 2010, Walmart committed to doubling the amount of locally grown produce it sells in the United States by the end of 2015. Credit: Courtesy of Walmart
This article was originally published in the 2015 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.