Another take on achieving sustainability

October 4, 2012
By David Granatstein

As several CSANR faculty members have agreed to do, including Andy McGuire, I am responding to the question posed by Center Director Chad Kruger on September 18: Achieving farm and food system sustainability: incremental vs. transformational pathways?

First of all, my own bias is that we are not likely to achieve farm and food system sustainability. This implies that there is a line that is crossed that moves one from “unsustainable” to “sustainable.” Since the world is constantly changing, what we consider sustainable today may not be valid at the end of a five- or ten-year period over which we pursue that goal. I would rephrase the question to begin: improving (rather than achieving) farm and food system sustainability.

We have many metrics with which to judge improved sustainability that do appear more durable over time.  Examples include: reduced soil erosion, improved water quality, reduced energy and non-renewable resource use, improved farm safety and working conditions, improved worker and farm family income, improved taste and increased nutritional value of food.

The motivation to change can come from quite different places.  A generally stable farm may be challenged by a new pest.  Depending on the tools and knowledge available, the grower response could be incremental (use a new pest control material) or more transformational (change the crop rotation, include border plantings, integrate new biocontrols), or both.  This sort of situation is an attempt to regain the assumed previous dynamic equilibrium on the farm.

Another farm may be growing a crop for which the market is shrinking. ‘Red Delicious’ apples in the late 1990s are one such example.  In that case, growers responded to decreased demand with more transformational change, selecting new varieties more appealing to consumers (but not necessarily with other sustainability attributes such as pest and disease resistance) and planting them on dwarfing rootstocks in high-density orchards (providing many sustainability benefits related labor, early return on investment, improved IPM, improved fruit quality and increased profitability).  The new orchard design is enabling further transformational changes to be considered, such as mechanical-assist harvesting and other automation, that address the key sustainability challenge of an adequate labor supply for a crop traditionally harvested by hand.

Finding the right variety, however, remains a challenge and a gamble.  ‘Honeycrisp’ apple is a good example.  This cultivar was given a number in 1960 and finally released to growers in 1991, after being considered for elimination.  Consumers discovered it in the past five years and prices received by growers have been among the highest ever (up to three times those of the popular ‘Gala’ and ‘Fuji’ varieties).  Thus the incremental change to ‘Honeycrisp’ has provided participating growers with a significant financial sustainability boost today, which of course could be jeopardized by continued planting that leads to an oversupply.

Another example from orchards is the development of codling moth mating disruption (to control the dreaded “worm in the apple”); an incremental change that allowed for transformation of orchard pest management over time.  This technology is probably the key reason why pesticide risk from apples, as calculated by Chuck Benbrook (presented at the Second International Organic Fruit Research Symposium, June 2012; publication forthcoming), dropped by 94% from before passage of the Food Quality Protection Act (1996 baseline) to today, a clear sustainability win for growers, consumers, workers, and the environment.

Probably the most dramatic transformation change that we have seen in agriculture in the past 20 years is the introduction of genetically modified crops.  Over 90% of the soybeans planted in the US are thought to be herbicide resistant types, and this transformation occurred over a short period since changing seed is one of the simpler innovations a grower can adopt.  The data on the impact of this transformation are mixed and full of controversy with regards to sustainability.  And with the increasing number of glyphosate resistant weeds, this long-recognized concern is becoming a reality.  Thus, transformational change may not necessarily enhance sustainability.

Given the need to manage risk in agriculture, growers can clearly benefit from incremental change that can transform the farm over time.  The outcome for sustainability depends on the technology, its application, how well the grower integrates it into the overall system, and the level of importance placed on achieving sustainability goals.

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