Monday, July 13, 2009

President's Editorial

Defining “Sustainable Agriculture” Poses Challenges

Defining what sustainable agriculture means poses a significant challenge. But in spite of widely differing views, a group of conventional farmers, organic farmers, agribusiness officials and environmentalists recently opened a dialogue in an attempt to create a new sustainable standard.

The new National Sustainable Agriculture Standard would allow a “sustainable agriculture” label to be stamped on food similar to current organic food labeling. It could also create a system that rewards farmers for reducing the amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides they use.

The components of this debate aren’t new to anyone close to agriculture or food politics. Putting labels on fresh and frozen meat and produce stirs controversy on many different levels. A strong lobbying effort from large meat packing companies effectively delayed implementation of country of origin labeling (COOL) of meat and fresh produce for the last six years. Now that COOL is finally in place, some grocery chains are using a label, especially on hamburger, stating the meat could come from as many as 10 different countries. We wonder how a label like that benefits consumers.

But getting back to what sustainable agriculture really means we believe this is an important debate, and everyone who cares about food and where and how it’s produced should form an opinion. One of the stickiest issues here is whether to allow genetically modified crops to carry the sustainable label. The 58-member standards committee initially used organic agriculture as a starting point and a preliminary draft of the standard prohibited genetically modified crops.

However, USDA and the American Farm Bureau Federation correctly opposed the language on the grounds that it would exclude 96 percent of domestic produce, meat and grains. Currently, only four percent of the domestic market is organic. In addition, genetically modified crops reduce the use of many pesticides, which should be a goal of sustainability. The new goal is to find a standard that makes room for any technology that increases agricultural sustainability.

Another interesting facet of this debate is that environmental groups have come under pressure to negotiate and look for compromises rather than utilizing their familiar tactics of propaganda and litigation. As with any business, in order to be sustainable, farms must be profitable. This fundamental often gets lost in the rush to regulate.

Over the last century American farms have demonstrated sustainability and experienced an incredible transformation. Size of farms and automation has dramatically increased while the number of people working on farms and the amount of acreage in production has drastically decreased. Label it any way you like, these are signs of a prosperous nation, sustained by agricultural production.

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