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November 1, 2016

Sustainability Has Much Value Despite Its Teeth-Grinding Perception

Many in the agricultural sector bow up their backs at the mere mention of “sustainability.”  They question the meaning of the term and see it simply as an added cost or a Trojan horse for prescribing someone else’s ideas for social, environmental and or economic practices on the farm.

What is definitely true is that “agricultural sustainability” frequently carries with it the agendas of others who think they know best how farmers should farm.  When these non-ag folks bring forward sustainability surveys, certifications, specifications or other programs intended to be implemented on the farm, it most frequently gins up resistance and pushback from the agricultural community.  That pushback is justified.  No matter how well intended others may be, they are not positioned to craft programs or specifications for a grower.  But, that doesn’t mean that the resistance to “sustainability” on the part of the agricultural community is justified.

There are many facets of a crop production system in which economics, environment and people (the designated three legs of the sustainability stool) may benefit through a performance-based approach to farming.  The minimization of inputs, the eradication of waste and a general focus on intentional restoration or building of natural and human capital will help agricultural systems to remain viable, strong, and contributive going forward.

Further, the focus on doing “more with less” is critical to ensure our future, given the fact that agriculture is being called upon to feed far more people with less land and water, and tighter regulatory controls.  Whether we move under the banner of “sustainability” or not is not important.  Taking control of our future by anticipating the constraints and then designing systems to eliminate them and build for the future is how agriculture will survive and thrive.

Look at the pressures facing California agriculture.  In many areas of the state, there is uncertainty regarding the current or ongoing availability of such things as water, labor and land.  There is also a crushing regulatory environment in which any number of California agencies are shifting away from the posture of working with the regulated community to ensure regulations are practical to one of command and control in which how you farm will be prescribed by bureaucrats with no to little experience outside government…much less on a farm.  This does not bode well for the future of California or its agricultural industry.

Our tried and true practice in the agricultural sector is to fight back against these types of pressures.  We take our voice, ground it in facts and science, and then confront detractors, push back on unsuitable policy, advocate for certainty in the system and even combat public opinion.  This historical approach is still occasionally effective and cannot be abandoned—ever.  But it is far less certain to carry the day in public policy arenas.

Is agriculture extractive in nature?  Are we linear in our approach to satisfying demand?  In other words, do we use raw materials as inputs to make products which, in turn, we sell to as many people as possible who then use and discard?  This is the classic “take,” “make,” “waste” economy which many will argue is only viable in scenarios where resources and inputs are abundant and inexpensive, and government or marketplace controls are not choking the system.

Agriculture does not neatly fit this model but there are aspects of it that hit close to home.  We in agriculture should consider reshaping the system.

We should begin to think and talk about how to build a circular economy for agriculture.  Are their ways to decouple the growth of agriculture from the limitations of finite resources and outside intervention?  Can we find the disruptive technologies and develop new business models that will advance renewability, reuse, elimination of waste, capacity sharing as well as other tenets of a business model that will ensure longevity while enhancing customer values of price, availability, quality etc.?  The value of a “circular economy” comes through resources that can be continually regenerated (ag might target soil, water, energy), optimized use of assets (ag might look to trading/sharing idle product and assets), longer life cycles (this may be harder for ag but service, remanufacturing, updating products present ways to monetize longer cycles) and linking value chains (what is the value of and who can use ag waste).

This thinking goes beyond “sustainability” which agriculture is already working on and should do more of.  This conversation will begin to help ag think critically about the challenges and opportunities to grow the industry (create value and business) in the face of scarce and volatile natural and human resources. It will likewise help to address those regulatory issues that are driving up cost and uncertainty.

There is no question that Western Growers will remain a stalwart opponent to those outside of agriculture who deem to impose their standards and specifications on industry without any benefit of practical experience.  At the same time however, the best solutions come from the farm and it is incumbent on us to explore the methods and models that will keep specialty crop agriculture strong, thriving, resilient and growing (profitable) so that we may make continued contributions to the health and well-being of people and the planet—the three legs of sustainability.