It’s interesting how the meaning of a word changes depending on what person or group is using it and for what purpose. The term organic originally meant anything pertaining to living organisms or compounds containing carbon. Today in society it has evolved to denote foods grown without the use of “chemicals” such as synthetic pesticides, hormone implants and fertilizers and/or without the use of genetically engineered organism. Natural originally denoted the world around us and today it has evolved to mean foods with little or no processing, chemical additives or in a “non-factory farm.” The term sustainable has also undergone such a change and what it means to a farmer or rancher is markedly different than what it means to the consumer, especially in the marketing of foodstuffs and by the restaurant industry.
Let’s start with the original definition of sustainable: Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level; Able to be upheld or defended; Pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse. In ecological terms sustainable defined the ability of a biological system to remain diverse and productive. So the original definition was simply anything that could maintain itself at a given rate for a long period of time. That definition has been modified and extended by many in the “sustainable” food movement to mean the following:
• Any of a number of environmentally friendly farming methods that preserve an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.
• The production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare.
Again, that sounds good because all producers and the public in general want to protect the environment, public health, maintain/improve resources, have animals humanely treated and producers be economically viable. How that is defined is where the dichotomy occurs between the “traditional” and “sustainable” agricultural positions.
The “sustainable” agriculture movement has evolved and what you all see in the media and ad campaigns by grocery stores and restaurants into a synonym for organic food production. It is shorthand for the elimination of synthetic pesticides, genetically engineered crops (GMOs), synthetic fertilizers, “artificial” hormones, and the elimination of factory and corporate farms. In some ways the movement is as much a social/political program of thought as an environmental one. This is not to demean the adherents, their concerns, or the need to continuously examine the safety and efficacy of how we produce food, fiber, and fuel. The majority of producers would be thrilled to not have to spend monies on pesticides, fertilizers, and GMOs. The overwhelming number of livestock producers are deeply concerned for the safety, health, and well-being of their animals. Next week’s column discusses just how “sustainable” the sustainable food movement is.