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Have Corporations Hijacked the Word 'Sustainable'?

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

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To find out how sustainable agriculture should be codified into standards, I asked Bob Scowcroft, who recently stepped down after a long career as executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. His answer was a surprise: he does not believe that "sustainable" should be translated into a list of specific farming methods or technologies at all! "Sustainability," he said, "is an all encompassing conversation around improvement in agriculture and any attempt to codify it defeats the vision I have because it becomes set in practices instead of principles."

Given that Scowcroft was one of the pioneers of the organic movement, how does "organic" -- which is defined as a set of practices -- compare to the principles of sustainability? Scowcroft explained that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was created as a "vehicle to carry improvements forward." As new issues arise in food and agriculture (for example, nanotechnology), NOSB can assess them. Simultaneously, as more sustainable alternatives to currently allowed technologies are developed, NOSB can adopt them into the standards.

Commercial fertilizer, genetically engineered seeds, and most herbicides are all banned from organics, but does that mean they are also unsustainable? I asked Scowcroft how these things were excluded from organics when the standards were first written. Commercial fertilizer, he explained, leaches nitrates into the groundwater, plus it is made from natural gas, a non-renewable resource. Genetically engineered seeds could cause "unforeseen, possibly catastrophic, effects on the environment." Most herbicides (any that are synthetically derived, possibly carcinogenic, and/or containing dioxins) are banned, but the standards leave room for safe, naturally derived herbicides.

These criteria comply with the Precautionary Principle -- the notion that a technology or substance is not used until it is proven safe. While it's possible that perfectly safe products or practices are kept out of use this way, history is full of examples of disasters (like the widespread use of now-banned DDT, which was assumed safe until proven highly toxic) when the Precautionary Principle is not applied.

The examples cited here are hardly the only instances of conventional agriculture claiming the mantle of sustainability for itself. For example, Monsanto, the biotech and chemical giant, says on its Web site that "Sustainable agriculture is at the core of Monsanto." Much of the page is devoted to future promises, since to date, Monsanto's contributions to agriculture have included widely used synthetic herbicides like Roundup and genetically engineered seeds that have resulted in an increase in pesticide use in the United States.

Syngenta, another biotech and agrochemical giant, says on its Corporate Responsibility page, "We want to contribute to food security by being a force for sustainable agriculture." Yet the company is the leading seller of the highly toxic herbicide Paraquat, which is banned in many countries, including Syngenta's home country Switzerland, but still permitted in enough countries to earn Syngenta hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

It's impossible to say whether agribusiness interests will succeed in claiming the term "sustainable" for their own. However, perhaps it should be seen as a victory for the sustainable agriculture movement that it has gained enough popularity that agribusiness sees it as a threat -- and wants to get in on its market. Still, this means sustainable farmers and sustainability advocates have a new task ahead of them to stand their ground and not cede the term "sustainable" to conventional agriculture.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. .

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