Sustainable? For whom?

Defining the word sustainability can be a bit like hitting a moving target.

As an example, here are three definitions drawn from different sources:

Google Search top result

 Sustainability

  1. the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

“the sustainability of economic growth”

  1. avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.

“the pursuit of global environmental sustainability”

Merriam Webster online Dictionary

Sustainability

  1. capable of being sustained of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
  2. sustainable techniques
  3. sustainable agriculture
  4. capable of being sustained of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods
  5. sustainable society

Oxford English Dictionary (print edition)

Sustain:

  1. to keep in existence, maintain or prolong.
  2. to provide sustenance for.
  3. to carry the weight of; support.
  4. to endure, withstand. 5; to suffer
  5. to uphold the validity.
  6. to confirm.

To review…

  • The top result for a Google search relates the word to the economy, and then the environment.
  • Merriam Webster on line dictionary defines it as, capable of being sustained, then refers to economic growth and the environment.
  • “Sustainability” was not even a word in the Oxford English Dictionary, and none of the definitions found in the OED refer directly to the economy or the environment. Digital based dictionaries have the luxury of being able to be edited almost daily, changing along with the language. Printed dictionaries have to be relevant for long periods so the definitions tend to be truer to the original intent of the word, not its current usage.

My point, depending on what you are looking to achieve, or influence, the word “sustainable” can have different meanings.

Taken out of context the word simply refers to maintaining. As an example, I would consider the term “sustainable growth” an oxymoron, as growth is not sustaining, it’s growing. Sooner or later, growth outstrips the capability of the current system to support it, which means the system needs to be dynamic, not sustainable. The problem I see is the word “dynamic”. It does not evoke the same emotional response as “sustainable” when speaking to certain groups. Moreover, I would propose that the meaning of any specific definition will change depending on the group.

For example, take the definition of “sustainability” as being the practice of conducting Agri-business in an environmentally conscientious manner. This will have different meanings for distributors, processors, farmers and Indigenous peoples. Some, will see it as a way to continue growth in their profit margin while using best practices. Some, will see it as a way to produce or grow product without draining natural resources. While others, would see it as a way of supporting the environment in such a way as you “leave no trace”, as you collect what you need.

Thus, the problem is very often what is sustainable for the environment does not sustain business in its current model very well.

This makes sustainable product more expensive, which means the community does not benefit from it very much. This leaves the ill formed impression that sustainable produce is for the wealthy. It’s more expensive to buy, as you are supporting producers who experience lower yields in some cases; and in other cases, you need a car to access the farmer’s markets. Though now you can, if you have the will, access some of them on public transit.

The inverse, where we have a system that benefits the community with readily available cheap food is very hard on the environment and leads to waste, therefore is unsustainable. It is also hard on the producers’ financially. It ties them to a system that relies on technology, which is expensive to buy and maintain. Often needing trademarked GMOs such as seeds, pesticides and fertilizers to maximize yields which puts them in a situation where they are producing massive yields but the overhead (or COGS) is so high that they are trapped in a subsistence level life style while watching hundreds of thousands roll through their accounts. It is also an extractive way of looking at food production which has a lot of parallels with how we mine, log and refine. They call it resource extraction for a reason.

 I recently attended the Certified Organic Association of British Columbia (COABC) conference this past weekend in Abbotsford…

There was a ballroom full of people trying to figure out how to balance their business, the environment and their books together. No one had a “eureka” moment where they stood up with the answer for everyone, but everyone was discussing the fact that we need to move towards this goal and start taking steps now, rather than discuss it endlessly. I think the farmers who were in attendance understood that we can slow the depletion of our environment, by adopting methods that capture, reuse and replenish, which we can gradually turn towards a neutral sum farming method. This will take time as there is much to put back before we can begin to move forward in a neutral manner.

One of the keynote speakers, Dawn Morrison, who is of Secwepemc ancestry and the Director of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty made some strong points on how we view the environment as something apart; that it is there to provide us with what we need. She spoke to how we need to see ourselves not only as part of this system, but as actually taking the system into us, that what we eat, what we consume, becomes part of the body that supports our mind and consciousness. That what happens to our Earth also happens to us, directly. I believe that everyone knows this on some level, but many of us, (myself included), have chosen at some point to ignore this for the sake of convenience.

That is what I see as the true nature of this dilemma. Much like how we do not complain about the ATM fees because we want the convenience of accessing our money, we are not complaining about the cost of having food convenient, cheap and plentiful. The key difference is that unlike the ATM fees, the price we are paying is a considerable debt that is building. A debt to our future that our kids, and grandkids are going to be paying, with interest, for our greed and complacency.

So, while Ecological and Environmental sustainability is a goal which we should all strive for. It will be costly to some in the long run, but it will pay back dividends. Rather than look at it as lost profits or inefficiency, look at it as a long-term investment where the “stock” is used to make soup.

So, what, after all that do I believe, and where do I stand?

I believe a sustainable food production system, or farm, should be as self-sustaining as possible. I do not want to start a system geared to produce hogs or chicken, eggs, or vegetable alone. I want to start a system where the animals are supported by the plants grown on the property, and the plants in turn benefit from the activities of the animals. That the product from this farm is what can be skimmed from the excess produced in this system.

As the animals become too plentiful, and start to affect the balance, you cull them. As the land supports these animals, any spare garden beds will contain produce for human consumption. We plant flowers to attract and retain bees, they in turn pollinate the crops and we harvest the honey. I hope that when I leave, I leave this property in better health than it is now.

This is my definition of “sustainability “, as it applies to food production.

Executive Chef, Wade Rowland

Cheakamus Centre

 

 

 

 

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