The Unsustainable Thoughtlessness Of Speaking In Slogans

There is a whole group of terms that tend to get bandied about when people speak about agriculture, and food production in general. They are used so frequently and so obsessively that their true meaning gets lost and they just become another way of filling speeches with grand-sounding but empty words rather than focusing on concrete programs and plans for action.

I am thinking of words like ‘quality’, ‘traceability’, ‘organic’ and even ‘taste’. Another word that is beginning to be widely used, but often in a very vague way, is ‘sustainable’ or ‘sustainability’. What do we mean when we speak about sustainable agriculture, sustainable production or sustainable consumption? How can we judge whether a product is sustainable or unsustainable? We need to know what environmental impact the product has had, from being grown to being consumed; we should be able to have a guarantee that it is healthy and safe; we should be able to find out whether it has enabled people to have work and make a living and that it has not caused economic hardship to poorer countries. It is not easy: the information is often not available or it is distorted.

But it is also not easy to achieve sustainability because it obliges us in the West to take a close look at our lifestyles and habits, and it is hard for us to do that from a sustainable perspective. But let us go one step at a time. First of all, it has to be stated that there is an urgent need for ‘sustainability’. And even that is not something generally recognized: human beings continue to overuse the biosphere by 30 to 50 percent and 20 percent of the global population consumes 80 percent of the world’s resources.

Can we continue to turn a blind eye? Secondly, some information to think about: which is more organic, organically grown bananas from Costa Rica, organic carrots from the Veneto which are sold in German markets or the local baker’s bread? The bananas may travel thousands of kilometers, but they come by a ship causing less pollution than the trucks bringing the carrots to Germany. As for the small baker, he may not be using his oven efficiently and may even be wasting energy. But the workers in Costa Rica, how are they treated? And the organic carrots, if they are grown as an extensive monoculture, are they more sustainable than those a small farmer grows just for himself using a small amount of chemicals?

Information plays a crucial role and the three pillars of sustainability, which should all have the same weight and be made known to the consumer are: environmental protection, social justice and economic feasibility. The environment and social balance are often sacrificed for money; well-being and worker satisfaction are often sacrificed in the name of environmental protection. The third point: are we so sure that the idea of sustainable production has made much headway in the minds of farmers worldwide?

If we look at the future, we can imagine three different scenarios. There could be an even more marked polarization between a mass market segment and a high quality segment. Mass production expands and more people leave the land while the processing methods remain hidden, advertising rules and standardized taste prevails. Or there could be a mixing of production methods and market segments and organic food achieves more significant success continuing from recent trends: whether true or not it is more a question of image than reality.

If everything were organic we would see monocultures supplying the large-scale retail trade, a reduction in biodiversity and unattractive landscapes even though not polluted; it would be more a lifestyle concept than a proper sustainable means of production.

Finally, the desirable outcome: if we began to ‘tell the truth about the costs’, we would begin to see a massive change in the food and agriculture sector. If the costs of the product included the chemical pollution, the reduction in biodiversity, the social and cultural impact on our rural areas and the impact on developing countries, consumers would not be so inclined to pay up. We would then be able to decide which was more ‘sustainable’, the local baker’s bread or the industrial sliced loaf.

When it comes down to it, sustainability is a question of judgment and conscience and if we have the information, we should be allowed to exercise this right.

First printed in La Stampa on Jan 25 2004

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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