Have Corporations Hijacked the Word 'Sustainable'?

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.

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.


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