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Is Sustainable Farming Going Mainstream?

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Thursday September 10th, 2009 | 3 Comments

National_Organic_Program

A recent article in Time magazine touted the need for sustainable agriculture. Calling the American food system “energy intensive,” the article predicted that “our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later.” The article also cited the consequences if American agriculture does not become sustainable: eroded farmland, antibiotic-resistant germs, and increasing health costs.

Another weekly news magazine, U.S. News & World Report, recently contained an article about sustainable agriculture. The article mentioned a study by the Technische Universitaet Muenchen which created a “new indicator model” to assess the sustainability of farms. Professor Kurt-Juergen Huelsbergen from the Organic Farming and Crop Production Systems at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen said that farmers who want to practice sustainable agriculture “need a solid basis for their decision-making.”

Last November a short article by Public News Service stated that sustainable agriculture “is catching on in California… sustainable farming practices are becoming more mainstream.” Kris O’Connor, executive director of the Central Coast Vineyard Team, was quoted as saying, “Sustainability is no longer this kind-of extreme sense of how to be looking at agriculture, but rather a holistic approach that respects both the human and the natural resources.”

Demand for organic produce has increased since the late 1990s, according to the National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service. The production of organic produce has also increased. From 1997 to 2003, organic food sales grew between 17 and 21 percent. Total food sales during the same time period only grew two to four percent. In 2003, organic food sales grew by approximately 20.4 percent, reaching $10.38 billion.

Despite the growing popularity of organic produce, marketing is still a challenge. As one organic farmer put it, “Marketing can be a challenge, but not so much anymore because we’ve been doing it for some time. Markets are more readily available than 20 years ago.” Consumers are turning to the internet to find local organic produce. A company called SPUD offers home delivery of organic produce and groceries for major West Coast cities. Consumers create an account with SPUD through the company’s website and then select items they want delivered.

The Time magazine article points out that despite the growing popularity of organic produce, less than one percent of American farmland is farmed organically, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). A report by the Kansas Sustainable Agriculture Series sites two impressions about sustainable agriculture which contribute to a lack of support for it:

  • Sustainable agriculture is similar to the type practiced in the early 1990s, which involved purchasing few inputs and marketing little of the produce.
  • Farmers value their freedom of action, and the recent interest in sustainable agriculture by governmental agencies has been viewed negatively rather than positively by some.

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Categorized: Agriculture & Food|

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  • Melissa

    Sustainable farming is becoming a buzzwords just like sustainable business, but it has no definition or verification. There is a Sustainable Ag Standard being developed thorugh ANSI, and EcoTrust has a “Certified Sustainable” label.

    Organic is not necessarily sustainable if farms/processors go no farther than the USDA organic guidelines, which don’t address issues like topsoil loss, over tilling, monoculture, factory farms, methane emissions from dairy, energy/water use, solid waste, etc and certainly don’t take social and economic factors like labor/wages into account.

    Yet, organics should be the foundation of sustainability, with sustainability representing an “organic plus” model incorporating broader environmental criteria, as well as social and economic.

    There is a big difference between IPM/chemical reduction and organic, with the former being pollutive and unsustainable (using petroleum-based fertilizers). Ecotrust’s “Certified Sustainable” doesn’t require organic, nor does Rainforest Alliance’s certification, indicating a big loophole for unsustainable practices.

    Fair labor and wages must also be taken into account. If farmers and workers can’t earn at least a living wage from farming and work in safe, respectful conditions, we will lose our farmers and that makes all talk of farming methods moot.

  • http://www.gina-mariecheeseman.com Gina-Marie Cheeseman

    Melissa, I second everything you wrote! As a resident of a farming community located in the nation’s largest agricultural area (the San Joaquin Valley), I know too many farmers who lease out their farms because they just can’t make a living from it. Fruits and vegetables don’t receive the same price supports as grains.

  • http://www.sipthegoodlife.org SIPtheGoodLife

    What a great article! I’m glad you discussed the need for sustainable practices to become integrated into our lives. I want to mention another cool sign that is just now hitting the market to signal consumers about the growing practices behind a certain bottle of wine. This sign that I am talking about is the SIP™ (Sustainability in Practice) Seal. In order to display this seal on their bottles a wine must have be made up of at least 85% certified fruit. The rigorous certification process requires sustainable growing practices from all angles; growers are required to prove to a third party auditor and then a committee that in their practices they have considered their duties to environmental stewardship, economic viability and social equity. These farmers pay a little bit more attention to water quality, energy conservation, biodiversity, and more. Grab a friend and grab a glass to raise a toast to this wonderful effort to bring sustainability to our wine aisles.

    For more information about these new SIP™ Certified wines check out http://www.sipthegoodlife.org.

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