All posts by jgerber123

I teach sustainable food and farming at the University of Massachusetts and try to live in a way that doesn't exploit people or the land.

Sustainable food and farming part II: symbols and perspectives matter!

In my first post of this series, I asked the question “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?” Of course the answer will depend largely on how we view sustainability.  In the standard (and for the most part universal) perspective, sustainability is viewed from three perspectives;

  1. Environmental Quality
  2. Social Equity
  3. Economic Viability

….. or variants of these.

If sustainable systems need to be supported by three legs of a milking stool (to put it in a farming context), it is clear that all three are important as a two-legged stool won’t stand.  While this is a simple, powerful image and perhaps useful as an introduction, it also comes with problems.

The three-legged-stool image is a variant of the commonly used Venn diagram which appears in many forms throughout the academic and farming  literature as well as  in marketing materials for various sustainable products.

Of course, the idea is that we all want to work toward the region where the circles overlap!   My problem with this commonly used depiction of sustainability is that it puts equal importance on each circle (or leg) and creates a situation in which competition among the three perspectives is inevitable.  This is a problem!

If we approach sustainability from the perspective of three interlocking yet  still competing objectives, we will never change our personal lives or our social systems in ways that can be sustained.  If this diagram remains as our model of sustainability then I’ll answer the question in my previous post (is sustainable agriculture sustainable?) with a resounding NO!  While this commonly accepted model of sustainability is a useful way to talk to someone who is new to the conversation, it is not adequate.

From this viewpoint, economic concerns will always trump environmental quality and social equity.  In fact, it could be argued that most modern industrial systems (including agriculture) are designed to exploit both people and the environment in order to maximize economic return.  A more progressive approach might be to “optimize economic return with the least negative impact on people and the environment as possible.” Have you ever heard that one?  I have.  But it is still about trade-offs.   Can’t we do better?

How can we look at sustainability in a way that integrates economic viability, environmental stability and social equity?  Where do we look for an answer?  Well, to me….. we look to the earth as our teacher.

I will examine  this idea in my next post, but to give you a taste of where we are headed – lets think about living systems (like farms) as levels of complexity, each level embedded in the next more complex level.

If we begin to see living systems as subsystems embedded in larger subsystems from the atom and molecule through the living cell, organs, organisms and on “up” through levels of ecological complexity….. then maybe we can make some sense out of our sustainability diagram.

What if “Mother Nature” was our model for sustainability?  What if we tried to understand how natural ecosystems function, and then design managed ecosystems (like farms) using principles of ecology?

Well, maybe then we would turn our Venn diagram into a model that depicted the relationship among each perspective more like a living system – more like Mother Earth!

What if we saw that a healthy economy depended on a healthy social system?  And a healthy social system depended on a healthy environment?  Maybe then we would see that competition among these three “legs of the stool” will not get us where we want to go!

To me, the symbolic representation of the three perspectives is important.  The living systems model represents a richer understanding of the relationships among potentially competing objectives.  But I”m really curious about what you think, so lets ask some questions.

  1. How might this “living systems” model of sustainability change our thinking?

  2. How might it change our behavior?

  3. How might it change the way we grow food?

  4. What do you think?

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For ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Sustainable food and farming part I: Is sustainable agriculture sustainable?

“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.” – H.L. Mencken

When I began my career as an agricultural scientist, the “well-known” solutions for farming problems were mostly about which fertilizer to apply or which pesticide to spray.  Fortunately, that rather simplistic approach lost favor as we became more aware of its unintended consequences.  Nitrates in our drinking water, herbicides in the surface water, and tons of soil running down stream were pretty clear indicators that something wasn’t working.

Of course is was yet another economic crisis in the mid-1980’s that drove farmers to join together to “invent” something they chose to call sustainable agriculture.   Agricultural scientists were slow to get the message, but eventually most came around to talk about sustainability in their own terms.  Today, sustainable agriculture is pretty mainstream.  But the terms that mainstream agricultural scientists choose to use (that of reductionist science)  is really not such a radical departure from the past.  Loosely described as “input substitution,” most agricultural scientists began trying to develop safer ways to apply pesticides and more organic means of applying nutrients.  With some exceptions, the scientific community struggled to think about farms as ecosystems, and most university trained scientists continued with a mechanistic approach to solving problems on the farm.

Many farmers on the other hand quite naturally saw farms as complex agricultural ecosystems, even when they didn’t have all of the tools or ability necessary to manage such complex systems.

This series of posts will explore what it means to be sustainable and compare the so-called mechanistic and ecological approaches to farming and science.  I will address this topic using both theory and practice, and while my exploration of sustainability will most likely apply to many aspects of life, I intend to focus principally on food and farming.  This is where my heart is and this is the area of study that I have a modicum of experience and some expertise.

Any linear mechanistic approach to solving problems in agriculture, a decidedly complex ecological system, is likely to fail in the long run.  As the quote from H.L. Mencken above suggests, even the most obvious solutions applied to complex systems are likely to be wrong when approached from the wrong frame of reference.  So perspective matters.  My next post will explore ways of looking at sustainability as I try to answer the question “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?”

If you are curious about the author of this blog, you are welcome to check out a bio statement on my web page, where you may find some background information as well as links to some of my writing and videos.

My hope is that this exploration elicits a passionate but thoughtful response from readers.  So let us begin this discussion with a question…..

…..is sustainable agriculture sustainable?

What do you think?