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What is Sustainable?
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By Ed Perkins

At the OEFFA Conference I led a workshop where the participants discussed this question. This and subsequent articles on this subject are based on that workshop.

The word sustainable is used a lot in some circles. The new bylaws state that it is OEFFA's mission to work together "to create and promote a ... sustainable system of agriculture ..."  But what does it mean? What are the implications? Does organic equal sustainable? This article will attempt a definition and future articles will look into the implications of sustainablity on different aspects of farming.

Richard Harwood gave a concise definition of sustainable."An agriculture that can evolve indefinitelly toward greater human utility, greater efficiency of resource use, and a balance with the environment that is favorable both to humans and to most other species."

Ted Bernard in his keynote address at the conference stated that sustainable is like "living on your income without depleting your capital" and that "it is not really a goal, but a quest, at which one will never fully arrive."

Another good definition which I have heard is that something is sustainable which will meet the needs of the present generation without harming the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The concept of sustainability includes certain basic elements.

* Time - Can this resource or practice last well into the future? Of course nothing on this earth lasts forever. The basic geologic forces of erosion, plate tectonics and volcanism are steadily rearranging the surface of the earth. Ultimately there is probably some asteroid out there that will recycle the earth back into the cosmos. But we are dealing here with human, not geologic or cosmic time scales.

* Extent - How widely or how many farmers can use this particular resource before it is depleted?

* Environment and Health - Does this practice cause serious harm to the environment, either local or global? Does it harm the health of the people who work on the farm or the consumers of the food?

* Preserve farmland - Does this farming system preserve farmland for the future? The United States is losing over 1 million acres of farmland a year to development. If this continues in 50 years there will be twice as many people and 50 million fewer acres to feed them.

* Economic and social justice - Does agriculture provide enough income for the farm owners and the workers? Does it exploit or oppress any people?

* Local resources - How dependent are farms on outside resources? A sustainable system should optimize internal, on farm or community resources and minimize external resources.

* Community - Do the surrounding farms support or harm the local community? We cannot look at a farm by itself. It must be seen as part of the community. Sustainable farms and the communities where they are located must be mutually supportive.

* Change - Can this farming system adapt to changing times? As the above definitions suggest, sustainability is not a static goal, but more of a moving target. It must be able to "evolve indefinitelly."

Farming used to be a net energy producer. Now for every calorie of food energy produced it took 3 calories for production and 7 calories for processing, distribution and preparation. Of the total production energy, 33% is used for fertilizer production, 17% for tillage and 10% for pesticide production.

* Fertilizer - energy to produce chemical nitrogen: 1800 Kcal/kg, phosphorus: 300 Kcal/kg, potassium: 2300 Kcal/kg.

* Tillage - plowing uses 21 litters/hectar, chisel plow 14, and heavy disk 12.

* Distribution - After it leaves the farm, the average morsel of food travels over 1000 miles.