What Does Sustainability Really Mean?

following was written by Holy Cross Br. David Andrews, a senior representative
at the Washington-based Food & Water Watch, a consumer lobbying

The word
“sustainable” is being used in so many ways today that it is hard to
know what it means. It came into increasing use after the 1987 report “Our
Common Future” published by the United Nations World Commission on
Environment and Development – also known as the Brundtland Report, named after the Chair of that Commission.

Its fundamental
insight is now well known: “Sustainable development is development that
meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs.”

It has frequently
been asserted that sustainable development rests on a three legged stool:
social justice, environmental protection and economic well being. In other
words it sees three elements: the planet, profit and people as interrelated in
any holistic view of sustainable development.

Advocates of
sustainable agriculture typically utilize these elements in their vision of

In more recent days
advocates of sustainability have utilized organic agriculture and local
agriculture as close synonyms to sustainable agriculture. At one time it was
thought that these definitions would suffice to protect sustainable agriculture
as distinct and different from more conventional agriculture with its highly
industrialized modes of production.

But the popularity
and positive public image of sustainable agriculture has been seen as a welcome
brand for food and fiber production. Such is this the case that new branding
efforts by industrialized production, processing and distribution systems have
now been claiming their own sustainability brands. The evening news programs on
public radio frequently carry Monsanto’s claim to represent sustainable

The Leonardo Academy
and the Keystone Center are two efforts to create national brands for
sustainability. Their efforts show how defining the criteria for sustainable agriculture

increasingly demonstrating the conflictive claims of the use of the term

The Keystone Alliance
for Sustainable Agriculture proposed to use all available technologies to feed
the world more “sustainably”, while at the same time being
eco-efficient. As part of Keystone’s framing activities, it pointed to its
peer-reviewed, science-based outcomes approach that documented increased
efficiency in the production of soybeans, corn, and cotton.

The Keystone project
is less open to public participation, making the exercise of structural power
in setting the parameters of the standards creation process less contested. An
examination of the trade associations, commodity groups, and GMO TNCs listed as members of the Keystone Alliance supports the
idea that it is the more preferred model between these two approaches.

Not long ago, The
National Research Council published a thick book: Toward Sustainable
Agricultural Systems In The 21st Century which sought to define sustainability
as a goal to be reached in the future, rather than draw any bright lines which
would differentiate various ideal types, for example, industrial versus
sustainable, agro-ecological versus conventional.

It preferred to identify
four sustainability goals:

1.Satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs, and contribute to
biofuel needs.

2.Enhance environmental quality and the resource base.

3.Sustain the economic viability of agriculture.

4.Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and
society as a whole.

The goals move in a
direction but fail to reach or identify a particular end state. Sustainability
in farming systems in this model is a process on a trajectory toward greater
sustainability. The authors don’t like to differentiate between conventional
and sustainable farming systems.

The National Research
Council and the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture emphasize an
approach that makes room for every type of farming system since they are all on
the way toward sustainability. It claims that there are incremental approaches
and transformational approaches, but all types of agriculture can be claimed to
be “sustainable”. Some are more firmly “on the way” than

Once again, the
public discourse in these approaches moves in the direction of watering down
the meaning of the term “sustainable” so that the term includes most
farming systems as going in the direction of sustainability no matter how
abusive they are to animals, no matter how dangerous their use of pesticides
might be, no matter how poorly compensated their farm workers are and how
harmful the physical demands on the laborers are as long as they are “in
the process” of moving onto the goals identified.

The Leonardo
Academy’s effort to identify the metrics of sustainability is a story told in
the journals of the academy.

Douglas Constance, a
sociologist from Houston State University published an account of how the
Leonardo Academy had to deal with threats to its certification process brought
on by the U. S. Department of Agriculture because it did not want to include
genetic modification as a tool of sustainable agriculture. The biotechnology
industry teamed up with the Department of Agriculture to threaten the process
of the Leonardo Institute to produce reliable indices of sustainability. They
threatened to take away their certification.

The term sustainable
is hardly serviceable today to demark a type of agriculture, it is being replaced by “local”,
“agro-ecological” and organic as serviceable alternatives in the
nomenclature battles of food and agriculture.

As a brand it still
has value, although its definition varies from group to group. Certainly given
the status of current branding efforts the consumer needs to be wary of the
term without engaging in closer looks to try to ascertain the concrete meaning
of the term.

By itself the word
“sustainability” has little meaning.