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Have Corporations Hijacked the Word 'Sustainable'?

Why we should not let Monsanto and friends decide the standards for sustainability.

Sustainability is trendy, but what does "sustainability" mean? Unlike organic, a term that is defined and strictly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, terms like sustainable, green and eco imply environmental friendliness but are not specifically defined. One might argue that shipping food grown in compliance with U.S. organic standards from China to sell them in supermarkets in New York is not sustainable due to the energy required to transport it, but that food could still be certified organic. And, on the contrary, a T-shirt made with genetically engineered cotton could never be certified organic (as genetically engineered seeds are prohibited in the U.S. organic standards), but could it be considered sustainable? Obviously, this wiggle room leaves plenty of opportunities for greenwashing.

Sustainable is defined as "capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage." But lately, some are trying to redefine the term to their own advantage. Ron Moore, a board member of the American Soybean Association, defines sustainable as "producing more food off of each acre while using less natural resources." Under this definition, he claims, soybean producers -- over 90 percent of whom use genetically engineered seeds and plenty of herbicide -- are sustainable. In fact, he notes, their recent advances in reducing tillage directly results in reduced fuel usage and carbon sequestration.

But does that make them sustainable? One might be able to say that a Ford Expedition that gets 14 miles to the gallon can do more while using less natural resources compared to a Hummer H2, but that does not mean the Ford Expedition is capable of "being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage."

Moore recently went on the radio show AgriTalk to explain why his organization and 54 other commodity and farm groups dropped out of a standards-making committee that was attempting to create standards for sustainable agriculture. AgriTalk producer John Herath introduced the segment, saying -- without noticing the irony -- that the standards development committee is "being run by environmentalists who aren't really interested in having an open and honest discussion about sustainability."

The committee was organized by the Leonardo Academy, an ANSI-accredited (American National Standards Institute) standards developer that is dedicated to advancing sustainability. The American Soybean Association (ASA) got involved out of concern that commercial fertilizer and genetically modified seeds would be deemed "unsustainable," thus making over 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. also unable to meet the sustainability standards. Yet, early on in the standards development process, the ASA dropped out as it felt it had irreconcilable philosophical differences with the others on the committee. Now it hopes to find a friendlier venue that will be more open to calling conventional soybean production "sustainable."

Moore isn't the first to call farming with genetically engineered seeds and herbicide "sustainable." In 2009, Blake Hurst, then the vice-president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, made the same case in his article, " The Omnivore's Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals." He wrote, "Herbicides cut the need for tillage, which decreases soil erosion by millions of tons. The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river."

No doubt reducing tillage -- and thus, erosion and fossil fuel use -- is a good thing. But can it be done without herbicides or commercial fertilizer? The answer is yes. The Rodale Institute has engaged in a 30-year study comparing conventional soybean and corn farming to organic methods that they have pioneered. Under the Rodale system, soil fertility is provided by compost and/or cover crops like hairy vetch or red clover. After the cover crops have done their job, they are killed and left on top of the soil as a mulch to suppress weeds and conserve moisture in the soil. At the same time, the main crop, corn or soybeans, is planted. This method produces corn and soy yields equal to or surpassing farming methods that use genetically engineered seeds and synthetic chemicals, but it also eliminates leaching of fertilizer into groundwater and herbicide use, while reducing fossil fuel use and increasing carbon sequestration. No-till farming using herbicides might reduce fossil fuel needs compared to a conventional system with tillage, but Rodale's organic methods reduce fossil fuel needs even more.

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