When asked about my new position at The Land Connection, I would inevitably talk about our work with sustainable and organic farming. I should have anticipated that someone along the way would want a further explanation, but I didn’t and then THAT GUY surfaced to ask what sustainable farming practices TLC was teaching/promoting and I, of course, had no idea. Being a person that hates not knowing the answers to important questions, I found myself eagerly arriving at one of my very first days at The Land Connection armed with the question “What is sustainable agriculture to TLC?” My consumer, pre-TLC understanding of sustainable was VERY limited. I had identified sustainable as a food-world buzzword because I noticed it frequently showing up on my non-organic food purchases as “sustainably produced” and I had also heard/seen the word at farmers’ markets. The thing about this, though, is that I (probably like many others in this world) did not take the time to research those words to find out what they meant, which obviously came back to bite me when I couldn’t even answer a question about a very important aspect of my new work. So with that being said, this month’s rendition of “Grow With Me” will shed some light on the meaning of sustainable, but more importantly, provide a bit more insight on labels and the need for consumers to ask questions.
I think the first step in understanding all of this is to start with a description of sustainable. Unfortunately, there is no clear, measurable definition for sustainable and because of that, it means a lot of things to a lot of people. I have heard it used by both small-scale specialty crop or livestock producers and large-scale conventional farmers. Each farmer is correct in their usage of the term, but because the spectrum of use of sustainable practices is so broad, it complicates things on the consumer understanding side. The general idea of sustainable agriculture is that it is a philosophy of protecting our planet for many generations to come (Does that sound familiar? It should! It’s essentially TLC’s mission.). Dr. John E. Ikerd, Extension Professor at the University of Missouri, offers a view of a sustainable agriculture system that I feel perfectly describes the concept. He says, “A sustainable agriculture must be economically viable, socially responsible, and ecologically sound… An agriculture that uses up or degrades its natural resource base, or pollutes the natural environment, eventually will lose its ability to produce. It’s not sustainable. An agriculture that isn’t profitable, at least over time, will not allow its farmers to stay in business. It’s not sustainable. An agriculture that fails to meet the needs of society, as producers and citizens as well as consumers, will not be sustained by society. It’s not sustainable…” This sounds like a wonderfully beneficial and productive way of producing food, so that makes me wonder why the average consumer is invested in organic and not sustainable.
So with that being said and hopefully a stronger understanding established… how do you know if you should buy certified organic or sustainably produced? This question is a bit more complicated to answer. A sustainably produced food’s impact on you and our environment can be better than, equally as good as, or worse than a certified organic food’s impact. Becoming USDA certified organic can be a grueling process for farmers because of the cost and time commitment, so many farmers choose to still farm organically without being certified. This is where the “sustainably produced” comes into play. Since farmers cannot label their food organic without a certification (there are exemptions here, but this is the basic idea), they choose to label “sustainable” or “sustainably produced” instead. This designation gives the consumer a heads up that good things are probably happening here, but a bit more research is warranted. The answer to whether you should buy certified organic or sustainably produced is that there is no right or wrong answer. The organic food certification is not a perfect system and some farmers find workarounds, but so many farmers are doing great things with organic food production and the foods are great for our environment and bodies, so the answer is that the consumer should still research and question how the organically produced food is farmed. Sustainably produced foods are not clearly farmed in one manner, which means there may be less than ideal practices happening with production or there may be amazing things happening for our environment and so the answer is once again that the consumer should still research and question how the sustainably produced food is farmed. See my point? The consumer should always research and ask questions. When you visit the farmers market, ask the farmers about their farming operation and how they grow the food you are buying. You can even use the Google machine to search for food and farms at your grocery store that market as sustainably produced or organic to find out what measures they are taking at their operation to ensure a healthy ecosystem for generations to come!