Defining sustainable agriculture
What is the definition of sustainable agriculture? Anyone who takes a few minutes to ponder this question will realize that the answer is not simple or singular. One must consider the complexities of what is to be sustained, for how long, for what or whose benefit, and by which means. To be sure, abstract conceptualizations of sustainable agriculture, such as the Three Es, are useful heuristics. However, when it comes to the actual assessment and implementation of sustainability activities, there is no generalizable definition. Definitions of sustainable, and sustainable systems themselves, are dynamic across the axes of space and time...
At the Center we are interested in how agricultural practitioners (farmers and outreach professionals) define sustainable agriculture, and have been exploring this subject in our NSF funded sustainable viticulture study. We collected 107 definitions of sustainable viticulture through open-ended survey questions and interviews from viticultural practitioners in the Central Coast, Lodi, and Napa Valley grapegrowing regions of California.
Interesting themes have emerged. Economic viability, ecological health, social equity, and the future, respectively, were the four most common themes in viticultural practitioner definitions. (A bar graph depicting the distribution of all themes is available at the attachment tab below.) Why do viticultural practitioners focus on these themes?
Fifty eight percent of respondents who provided a definition included economic viability in their definition, 52% included ecological health, and 43% included social equity. Considering that the viticulture industry has a long history of sustainability programs that employ the Three Es framework, it is no surprise that these aspects of sustainability are strongly represented. Economic viability being the most frequent theme could be explained by the economic realities of modern agriculture. As open grower put it, “If I can’t pay my bills, I won’t be around to steward the land and take care of my employees.” Ecological health being the second most frequent theme could be explained by the societal concerns over agricultures’ treatment of the environment that was the early driver of sustainable viticulture programs. Social equity comes in third at 42%. This fits with our observations of California’s sustainable viticulture programs, which do include outreach for social equity, but mostly focus on the ecological health and economic viability.
Most interesting is the fourth most frequent theme: time. Twenty seven percent of viticultural practitioners who provided a definition of sustainable agriculture included the notion of “farming for the future.” Nine percent included generational succession of family farm ownership, which is a more specific interpretation of the future. Together, these two are included in 39% of grower definitions. This finding is useful in interpreting some patterns of behavior. Most California winegrape growers who participate in one of the state’s four sustainability certification programs are not paid a price premium by wineries. If not for the individual and immediate economic benefit, why are certification attrition rates low and why is the number of growers participating in certification programs increasing? One potential explanation is that they believe, or at least are betting, that the individual and public benefits of sustainability practices will be realized at some point in the future - years or even generations down the road. Additionally, the further into the future, the more difficult it is to make the distinction between public and private benefits. Public benefits such as water availability or air quality eventually impact the individual. Epistemologically speaking, a long-term view leads to convergence of pubic and private benefits. Knowing that the future is included in viticultural practitioners’ world view is useful for scientists seeking to understand how farmer decision-making is simultaneously influenced by the short-term individual benefits of economic viability and the long-term public benefits of social equity and ecological health.
We will continue to report on definitions of sustainability in future blog postings, and keep an eye out for our forthcoming research brief exploring these findings more thoroughly.