Wednesday, March 23, 2011

(Re)Defining the terms

Here is the definition of sustainable agriculture, as defined by Congress in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA): “the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
  • ·         satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • ·         enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • ·         make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • ·         sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • ·         enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
 (from Mary Gould, USDA 2009)

The meaning of "sustainable agriculture" has been somewhat hijacked. For the last few years, many of us link the concept of “sustainable agriculture” to Michael Pollan (and now Oprah, apparently), as if he spearheaded such a movement. He didn’t, but we can thank him for bringing it in vogue. I’ll speak for the beef industry here, which has worked to produce 13% more beef with 30% less land, 13% less cattle, 14% less water, 18% less carbon emissions, and 20% less feed, and 9% less fossil fuel energy…this is comparing 2010’s progress with 1977. If you don’t reference these publications by Dr. Jude Capper et al. (WSU) now, you will want to later, since we’ll be discussing their findings often: (Capper et al., 2009;WSU Food Myths Debunked 2010; Capper et al., 2010)
That kind of sustainable practice deserves applause. However, Michael Pollan doesn’t seem to think so, since while lecturing at Michigan State University in 2010, he answered a question (“Is it possible to feed the world on a grassfed, Salatin-style paradigm?...”) in this way: : “I don’t know if sustainable agriculture can feed the world, but I do know conventional agriculture hasn’t done it yet.” Confused? One, sustainable agriculture, as defined by U.S. Congress, implies the world is able to be fed. Two, conventional agriculture hasn’t done it yet? Michael, where have you been since 1977? Keep in mind that Pollan abides by his own definition of sustainable agriculture, which would explain his self-doubt: "Farmer-in-Chief" article, New York Times, 2008  .

Take a look at these two newspaper articles: "Sustainable Farming" New York Times, 2011; "Sustainable Farming" Dallas Morning News, 2011. To me, they are exactly the same. Different people, yes, but same words, same mantra, same mystery references to science. These people are trying to answer legitimate questions and address legitimate concerns, and I'm not saying they're wrong as much as I'm saying they're providing nebulous answers with nebulous support, and by the time you finish the article, you haven't gotten anywhere. I am thankful for freedom in the agricultural market that makes room for many different agricultural practices to respond to demand. I regret that consumer demand may be to some extent manipulated by demagoguery and guilt trips imposed by a few very vociferous parties. What do you Think?


  1. Great post, Cassie. Thank you so much for bringing this issue forward. It is certainly one that needs to be clarified. I look forward to more from you and a dialogue/discussion that will highlight scientific facts over emotion.
    Neva Cochran, Registered Dietitian

  2. The minds of many are directed by thoughts of the few. It is very disheartening to producers world round that a few people can negatively impact the most important profession. Sustainable agriculture (as defined from congress) is the "holy grail" that every producer and scientist wishes to conquer. As you mentioned, great strides have been taken in the beef industry in both efficiency and effectiveness. Fortunately, these great strides have been made in most types of agriculture. IMO, consumers are greatly misinformed on sustainable agriculture and believe that "sustainable" and "organic" are interchangeable terms. It seems they fail to realize that neither type of agriculture can be successful without extensive scientific research. It will not be an easy road for the producers, but we must strive every day to be as effective as possible to keep feeding the world.

    Good post,


  3. Thanks for your comments, Aaron and Neva. It's exciting to know that research is happening and has happened; that the agricultural industry is en route to solving problems we do have. Both the academic and industrial communities are inherently dissatisfied with status quo, which keeps graduate programs like Texas A&M open for business! I will work on gathering examples of ways in which the Crops and Soils sciences have achieved in the way of sustainability, but please help me cite more examples! I will add, too, that through Pollan's work to bring everything "in vogue", awareness has certainly been raised. I'm glad of that. However, he attempts to provide answers which are not keep Thinking!

  4. Cassie -- Great post! I'm so glad you started this blog as a place for reasonable, fact-based discussion about food production.

    I think you might want to double-check the numbers you cited from the Capper study ("28% more beef with 30% less land, 13% less cattle, 14% less water, 18% less carbon emissions, and 20% less feed, and 9% less fossil fuel energy…this is comparing 2010’s progress with 1977.)

    According to the press release issued by WSU, "In 2007, there were 13 percent fewer animals slaughtered than in 1977 (33.8 million vs. 38.7 million), but those animals produced 13 percent more beef (26.3 billion lbs. of beef versus 23.3 billion lbs. in 1977). By producing more beef with fewer resources, Capper found that the total carbon footprint for beef production was reduced by 18 percent from 1977 to 2007."

    The release also cites some of the other numbers you mentioned...

    "When compared to beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced in modern systems used:

    -10 percent less feed energy
    -20 percent less feedstuffs
    -30 percent less land
    -14 percent less water
    -9 percent less fossil fuel energy
    -18 percent decrease in total carbon emissions (methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide"

    These are great numbers! Just want to make sure we cite them correctly. Here is the link to the release:


  5. Erratum indeed, thank you, Daren! The 28% came from the WSU Food Myths Debunked, 2010 link I posted. From looking at the USDA stats website ( from where Capper et al. derived 28%, I believe he discrepancy probably has to do with this: 13% more beef was produced from all slaughtered cattle in 2010 vs. 1977. 28% more beef was produced from the average fed calf in 2007 vs. 1977. I have amended the post accordingly.