Sustainability in a wasteful world
Rodale Institute research intern calls for major changes in policy and behavior; ones which, like good farming, mimic nature.

By Juan DeRojas

editor's NOTE:

The Rodale Institute interns take turns tracking their observations and sharing what they are learning as they help out the various departments here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

--NF Editors

June 15, 2007: Let’s face it, the United States and her inhabitants are extremely wasteful. From plastic bags and packaging materials, to fuel-inefficient automobiles to oversized food portions, we are a nation and people who (shamefully) pride ourselves in the foolish motto that “bigger and more is better.”

In your daily activities, stop and take notice to all the wastefulness being exhibited around you: lights being left on in empty rooms, easily recyclable products being discarded in the trash, food scraps being thrown into plastic garbage bags instead of in a compost pile. The list goes on and on.

In 2005, residents, businesses and institutions in the United States produced more than 245 million tons of municipal solid waste. This is approximately 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day! And believe it or not, all of this waste doesn’t just vanish into thin air once it gets loaded onto your local municipality garbage truck. The majority of this waste will get disposed of in a landfill, while little will get recovered/recycled or composted, and some will be burned at combustion facilities (adding to our air-pollution problems). These waste-management practices find a “suitable” home for all this garbage, but the remnants will linger on for many moons to come in our air, soil, and water.

If one was to be truly honest in these perilous times on planet Earth (global warming, loss of biodiversity, dependency on foreign energy sources, war, etc.), they would realize that a drastic shift in policy (regarding both production and consumption) and the socially accepted ways of consuming are necessary.

Throughout time, most beneficial and worthwhile change has occurred from the bottom and worked its way up through the ranks. It is widely believed and accepted that agriculture is the root of civilization. To quote my fellow intern’s previous journal entry, “Farming is the root of everything.” So why not start at the root of everything and civilization, which is agriculture?

If more farmers implemented sustainable practices on their farms, I believe that this would have a positive snowball effect and branch outward to all different sectors of society, hopefully in time transforming it from its current polluting, wasteful state to a more environmentally sound and sustainable one that will be around for generations to come.

In order for sustainable practices to work, whether they are in agriculture or business, they must meet three critical objectives, also known as the triple bottom line: economic profitability, social benefits to the community and environmental conservation. All three of these goals can be met with proper planning and implementation.

Sustainable agriculture, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily organic, and organic agriculture is not necessarily sustainable. Sustainable agriculture is, however, a whole-system approach which aims to maintain the overall health and well-being of the land and the people that land supports. Sustainable agriculture strives to simultaneously meet the goals laid out by the triple bottom line. With regard to environmental conservation, sustainable farming aims to integrate soil, water, plants, animals, climate and people into a successful production system that is symbiotic with the environment, the people and the economy. Sustainable farms mimick the natural systems and healthy ecosystems found in nature. Nature has a special knack for balancing herself out and finding equilibrium (this despite our best efforts to upset that balance). Why, then, should we treat a farm—which is a natural system and works in cycles—like a factory, which is not a natural system and requires vast amounts of energy inputs resulting in rampant air, soil and water pollution?

Economic and social sustainability in agriculture (and in all of society) can be achieved through proper planning and sound management. When these two objectives are met, farms and farmers remain in business, achieve annual profitability, decrease their reliance on government payments, decrease their reliance on off-farm inputs such as feed and fertilizer (thanks to composting and cover crops), support other local businesses and families and also boost the local economy.

Society as a whole can learn valuable lessons from the cycles found in nature and the sustainable practices found in agriculture. By assimilating sustainable practices into the norm of society, the nation as a whole would be less dependent on foreign sources of energy, local economies would receive a boost, the quality of life for many would be elevated and, most importantly, planet Earth and nature would stop receiving the detrimental onslaught that has been going on uninhibited for much too long.