Defining SUSTAINABLE Agriculture 


Marketers have always used trendy buzz words. As a kid, every product from furniture glue to Tang featured “space age technology.”  Then came the “new and improved” revolution - everything was touted as better now than it had been. Today, we’re fully into the “sustainable” era. From carpet made of recycled milk jugs, to restaurants growing their own herbs, it’s trendy to be sustainable. 

According to, sustainable, as referred to in Agriculture, means: pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse.

But when critics of modern food production say, “sustainable,” they don’t really mean “viable” or “techniques that allow for continual reuse.”  In their vernacular, sustainable means: Old fashioned. Or small. Usually it means organic. Sometimes it means local, though that’s increasingly ambiguous too. One article I read referred to food production methods used in third world countries as sustainable. 

Seems decades of food surpluses and being several generations removed from the farm has some consumers confused between “sustainable” and “subsistence?”  

I’ll clear things up. 

Old Fashioned Doesn’t = Sustainable

My grandfather milked cows as a hired herdsman. In 1945 those cows produced less than 5,000 pounds of milk per year. Today’s dairy cows produce around 22,000 pounds. Better yet, our cows make a gallon of milk using half the feed they used to. 

It’s the same story throughout modern Agriculture: more output with less natural resource input in every category from soybeans to spinach. 

One more thought. Grandpa also plowed the soil numerous times per year which created sedimentation of waterways and soil erosion. Heard of the Dust Bowl? Your farm being blown to another state is hardly sustainable. 

Subsistence isn’t the Same as Sustainable  

I saw a food blog that praised an African tribe’s sustainable farming techniques. The author touted the tribe’s “adaptable” non commercial cattle breeds grazing in the bush and their soil enrichment techniques — which consisted of slash and burn deforestation. 

If sustainability, by definition, means we can do it forever here on Earth, primitive villagers setting fire to the rain forest and grazing cattle in environmentally sensitive ecosystems is not the way forward. 

Small and Local Don’t = Sustainable

Just because a farming operation is small, that doesn’t mean it is more Earth friendly. In fact, many smaller operations suffer from negative economies of scale, using more resources per unit of output than their scaled-up counterparts. 

Likewise, “local” depicts a farm down the road, but in reality there is no USDA definition of local. Even if the food did come from a mile away, that doesn’t mean it was the most efficient utilization of land, water, and climate. 

Say I figure out how to grow bananas indoors in Indiana on a small scale. They’d be local to my neighbors, but would they qualify as sustainable? 

Organic Doesn’t = Sustainable

Now to really upset the (organic) apple cart…. Some folks don’t like the idea of chemicals being sprayed on their food. For them, organic means sustainable. The only problem: there’s a huge list of approved chemicals used in organic farming. 

Worse yet, organic production requires more land and natural resources to produce less crop than the conventional alternative. 

Business Must be Profitable to be Sustainable

When folks ask if my hobby beef operation is sustainable, I say, “Yep, if I continue to earn money delivering speeches, I can sustain my beef operation.”  

The point is, Agriculture is a business. Businesses are only sustainable if they are profitable. 

A decade from now there’ll be a new buzz word. For the time being, it’s all about sustainability, which is fine for Agriculture. Because every season we make more food with fewer natural resources and less negative impact on the environment. If you care about sustainability, support modern Agricultural techniques. 

Damian Mason is an Agriculturist, speaker, and proponent of (real) sustainable agriculture. Find him at