What is Sustainability? – June 2011

One of the most overworked, but underdefined, words being used today in the world of resource use is sustainability. 

You cannot read a government resource document without running into the agency’s use of the word in every paragraph, or at least every page.  The recent rules dealing with how the Forest Service is to plan uses sustainability as a key principle.

In recent discussions of the Farm Bill, again we see and hear sustainability used in almost every context.  Agriculture, we are told, must become more sustainable.  The last Farm Bills have had conservation titles which again mention the word sustainability.

Olivier De Schutter, the UN special “rapporteur” on the right to food, in a report last October said, “Low-technology, sustainable techniques may be better suited to the needs of cash-strapped farmers working in the most difficult environments.”

The biggest thing in all of these discussions is that nobody really knows what the word means.  To someone who worked in the timber industry, a sustainable timber industry has been destroyed by some in the Forest Service and their allies in the environmental movement.  Yet one of the arguments I’ve heard time and time again from those opposed to timber harvest was that Forest Service timber sales were not sustainable.  Now, we in Wyoming have millions of acres of trees which have died and some of the few green patches left were areas from those previous timber sales.

To folks like Mr. De Schutter, the current agricultural techniques which made food shortages a thing of the past, are not sustainable.   Yet people like the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, who saved more people than all of the efforts of the UN combined, argued that the way to a sustainable world was in those techniques criticized by Mr. De Schutter.

By misusing or overworking the word, it is fast becoming a nebulous term in people’s minds, at least as it relates to resource management.

At the end of the day, agriculture in the United States can be proud of their results.  We have substantially increased the number of people one producer can feed over the last half century.  While we’ve had our challenges, and will continue to have challenges in the future, America’s food producers will continue to provide abundant food to Americans as well as the rest of the world.

Now if you want to talk about something that is not sustainable, just look at our national budget.

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Executive Vice President

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