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Will sustainable agriculture feed our world? It depends on your definition

Courtesy photo

Which topic do you think today’s consumer would rather talk about: GMOs or sustainability in agriculture?

Surprisingly, ag leaders are being told that consumers don’t really care about GMOs but are very interested in talking about sustainability. When I hear "sustainability in agriculture," two things happen: First, I get angry because most equate sustainability with environmentalism, which will never feed a growing population, and secondly, my eyes roll into the back of my head because I cannot think of a more boring topic.

However, I have become willing to reconsider my views on sustainability after hearing that executives from Monsanto are saying that consumers don’t care as much about GMOs as they do sustainability. (Sorry. I almost fell asleep already!)

So, here are my thoughts. (Please continue reading because talking about sustainability is really important, and we all need to get on the same page.)

The problem with sustainability is that it means a different thing to each different link in the ag chain. In my view, many definitions fall far from meeting what we really need to have true agricultural sustainability. Many companies and environmentalists define "sustainable" using language favoring organic ag while excluding any modern agriculture, and their view is based on environmentalism that can never meet our population’s food demands.

Can agriculture be sustainable without providing adequate food and adequate choices to a growing population? No, it cannot. This is not to say that organic farming and environmentalism are not a portion of the equation; however, current agricultural practices must also be included. When I looked at sustainability reports from USDA, I find that our government sustainability report is highly influenced by environmentalism and organic farming and is even hosted on a website specific to “alternative cropping practices.” (At least that is what first pops up in an internet search.)

When I looked to see what Kansas State University says about sustainable ag, it also has components of environmentalism and isn’t a truly comprehensive view. When I searched for a Kansas Department of Agriculture report on the sustainability of agriculture, I didn’t find one.

For us to reach sustainability, we have to have an industry-accepted definition, each link in the food chain must report on sustainability, and modern agricultural practices must be included.

So, what should sustainability in ag look like? Webster’s defines "sustainability" as production capable of being maintained, not depleted or permanently damaged. To me, sustainable agriculture must provide an affordable abundance and variety of healthy food choices to meet the needs of our growing and changing population while maintaining the human, mechanical and natural resources used for food production.

For true sustainability, we need each link in our food-supply chain to make a reasonable profit so that we can build the infrastructure and manpower to provide growth to keep up with the growing population. Today, American agriculture is not sustainable because commodity prices are too low for the farmer to be profitable. We cannot afford to adequately fertilize the fields or replace equipment or attract new workers or attract new farmers. Until each level of the food chain is profitable, we will not reach sustainability.

To reach a truly sustainable agriculture, each aspect of the supply chain needs to provide a regular sustainability report, and we all need to have a common sustainability definition. This means that USDA, supply companies (seed, fertilizer and pesticide), farmers/ranchers, state ag departments, universities, etc., cannot have their own definition of sustainability. They cannot focus only on environmentalism, which will never adequately supply the population.

In my view, a common definition will likely never occur, but each link in the chain can supply an accurate and regular sustainability report and provide that to those who truly want to see sustainability. At least then we have started the communication necessary for understanding and movement toward a sustainable agriculture.

Sustainability will never be achieved without communication and understanding and a willingness to allow profitability in all sectors of agriculture.

Jim Sipes received a master's degree in agronomy from Kansas State University and returned home to Stanton County. He is the fourth generation to work the ground alongside his uncle and father.