Draft Animal Power – Draft animals and sustainable land stewardship › Forums › Community of Interest › Public Policy/Political Activism › What is "sustainable"?
- November 21, 2012 at 8:19 pm #75829gwpokyParticipant
When raised on grass, ruminants are one of the most sustainable forms of food we have.November 21, 2012 at 11:55 pm #75824
I think that we need to struggle with discussing and even trying to define “sustainable” or stop using term if it’s too nebulous.
You’re right George – until humans can photosynthesize or digest cellulose, ruminants are the best option. There’s a pretty good portion of land that is unsuitable for crop production but can still be used for grazing.November 22, 2012 at 12:34 am #75811
@near horse 37696 wrote:
I think that we need to struggle with discussing and even trying to define “sustainable” or stop using term if it’s too nebulous…..
I think the ability to change with the environmental pressures is a big part of the definition, and it is a big part of why it is so hard to effectively define. Flexibility, especially to the point of evolving to another form, or successional state is what makes Life on Earth sustainable. No organism, ecosystem, or process is ultimately “sustainable” without the ability to change to meet the changing environmental pressures.
Moreover that also must mean that there are some reserves of fertility, or nutrients, or clean water and air, something available to support the activity of living.
In simple terms it is defined as able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. So choosing the rate of consumption, or utilization of resources must have something to do with effective use of the term.
Also in ecology it is defined as conserving an ecological balance by avoiding a depletion of natural resources. However I think that avoidance is a bit inadequate. I think it has to be “restorative” of natural resources….
CarlNovember 22, 2012 at 10:42 am #75812
It is interesting to note that the basis for modern agriculture, moreover society in general, is to control, reduce, eliminate environmental pressures…….. how sustainable is that???
I will say that I think sustainable human life has to do with a sustainable rate of consumption of requisite natural resources. So the use of any finite reserve cannot truly be sustainable. Also there needs to be an evaluation of how responsible we are with our consumption……. should we be making electricity at the current rate, regardless of the source, just so that we can run street lights all night, or air conditioners, etc…
There must be a reliance on naturally restorative processes of Earth-based biological systems.
It also must have something to do with protection of certain resources like water and air.
So I’m thinking that sustainable agriculture must be flexible, using natural nutrient and energy cycling systems, and protective, or non-destructive, and restorative.
In my mind that means using draft animals and human power. Growing a diversity of crops and livestock, at least within communities. Creating local (within walking distance) food systems. Accepting production that matches available fertility and nutrient reserves. Using inputs that are locally sourced and naturally available, including mechanical and structural infrastructure. Incorporating systems that can be maintained with minimal energy or technical expertise. It means grass based livestock operations. It means ecologically diverse methods of utilizing the landscape, including forest products, especially in areas where the natural ecotype is forest and all agricultural activities dedicate certain energy to preventing forest regrowth.
It is definitely a rabbit hole…… I have been working for nearly 30 years, and I find myself a captive of my place in time and space. I am a long way down that road, but cell phones, computers, trucks, trailer, atv, are all symptoms of the culture I live in, so I make compromises. These compromises tend to be our Achilles heel, because if I ask for compromises then why can’t big AG?
Also there are arguments that suggest that what I laid out above cannot begin to feed the world population now, so that is unsustainable……. so maybe we need to think that controlling consumption is elitist, or worse….
So back to the oblique nature of the concept…. Life on Earth is sustainable because of the unique nature of the planet to absorb energy from the sun and cycle that through a diverse ever-changing interacting mass of biological communities, none of which are ultimately sustainable in a continuous form or process……including humans….
I for one am satisfied with a concept that I strive for, accepting that I am not able to truly attain the ideal, but working to set an example of an attempt. It is hard maintaining self respect when spouting concrete or rigid standards when you cannot adhere to them yourself. This is one of the reasons many folks in our shoes have tried to stop using the term sustainable.
I don’t over-use the term in describing my lifestyle. I tend to focus on ecological integrity, and Earth-based systems, etc….
CarlNovember 22, 2012 at 12:04 pm #75831Andy CarsonModerator
i think that sometimes it is OK to use a somewhat nebulous word like “sustainable” when you need to convey a give people a general idea of what you are motivated by. I agree that when you dig deeper, there will be differences in emphasis between different sustainable practices, but i also think there will be some agreement a cross the board. For example, I don’t see how anyone could argue that continuous corn production, with the its heavy fertilizer and herbicide use, and poorer yields when compared to rotation, is sustainable… I would guess many people initially have an idea of what “sustainable” means to them and assume it means the same to others. Once they learn that sometime it doesn’t include a consideration that is close to thier heart, they willpredescibed set of standards probably ask about that specifically. I think this is good all around as it opens up a discussion of specific actions/concepts and makes everyone look at a more comprehensive view with room for personal opinions/beliefs rather than a view that must conform to a predescribed set of “sustainable standards.” In short, I think that “sustainable” means “I have thought about how what I do effects the world around me and have chosen practices that reduce or eliminate negative impacts.”
For me personally, I think of sustainable in primarily ecological and economics terms. I feel that it is important to figure out a way to make practices that benefit the earth as a whole be profitable. I would rather have many people turn reasonable profits benefitting the earth to a reasonable degree, than to have very few people benefitting the earth and going bankrupt in the process. I’m a bit more pragmatic that way, I guess, or maybe I just see this as an issue with many “shades of grey” in many aspects. I don’t think about social justice much when i think about sustainability. Really, I don’t think about social justice much when I’m not thinking about sustainability either… I guess we all have our limits when it comes to nebulous terminology… 🙂November 22, 2012 at 12:41 pm #75834mitchmaineParticipant
I’m wondering if we didn’t leave sustainability behind us when we climbed down out of the trees and started agriculture. As hunter/gatherers, we were part of a much larger balance sheet. On the move all the time, taking the weaker of the herd animals, we had a niche and fit it well.
As soon as we domesticated plants, we needed to do the same with animals. We set up all the steps to create the first city. One person growing enough food to sustain others and freeing them up to create social order. Next, an army, and so on.
Trying to make a farm sustainable means creating a city and the model fails.November 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm #75827dominiquer60Moderator
I agree with sustainable being about how I see myself fitting into and effecting my environment, generally I think local, but I keep the big picture in mind too. I know that I put an emphasis on nutrient cycles when educating customers or in passing conversation.
Once on Facebook a friend of a friend was putting down eating any meat because the way it is produced is unsustainable and they said that cows were bad for the environment. I pointed out that feedlot and CAFOs are unsustainable and buying meat from these places promotes bad methods. Then I pointed out that even if I use the best most organic methods and grow vegetables in the same place every year with out animal manure, that is a bad method too. If I have enough animals grazing forages to meet my fertility needs and enough land to rotate my crops (veg, grains and sod) then this is a better method, one that keeps trying to strike the balance between harvesting the suns energy through plants and returning it through manure management. If the farmer’s goal is to raise meat then chances are there is a better way to do it, if the goal is to raise animals as part of a small scale agricultural system the chances are more likely that there is less of a negative impact by this farmer that views meat as a by product of a diversified system. It is a simple argument, but one that I use with mainstream vegetarians and vegans that so far has left them without too much left to say.
I am caught up in “symptoms of the culture” as well, but rather than constantly reminding myself that the earth is over populated by resource consuming humans that are bound to consume our selves extinct, I choose to think about my impact on the now and the local. If I unplug my cell phone charger it will consume a fraction less energy, if I resist the temptation to drive across my fallow lot I will reduce the amount of compaction by a fraction, if I eat bean based protein when I eat out I will not be supporting big Ag meat production. Of course there are larger decisions to be made as well, but I think that those of us that are in tune with the little things tend to make better bigger decisions.
In short I think that part of attempting to define sustainable as a human is making decisions that minimize our negative impact while allowing ourselves to live. But Geoff if there are volunteers, the earth takes all kinds 🙂November 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm #75813
@Countymouse 37700 wrote:
……… i also think there will be some agreement a cross the board. For example, I don’t see how anyone could argue that continuous corn production, with the its heavy fertilizer and herbicide use, and poorer yields when compared to rotation, is sustainable……..
…..I feel that it is important to figure out a way to make practices that benefit the earth as a whole be profitable……
I think there is more agreement on what is NOT sustainable, than on what is….. which is the root of Geoff’s question.
As far as profitability, on our farm we make it clear that our clients pay more for the food they buy from us precisely because of the investments we make in the environment of our farm and community. We purposefully keep our production down so that we are not at the mercy of a fickle marketplace. If we can’t sell it at our price, we can keep it, and eat it ourselves, protecting our investment by not devaluing it just to sell it.
I think what Mitch says is the absolute truth….
CarlNovember 22, 2012 at 4:16 pm #75839AnonymousInactive
I’m with Mitch as well. I strive for sustainability in farming but it is a constant chase, for me sustainability is living in nature not making a living in nature.
JaredNovember 23, 2012 at 3:36 am #75820tsigmonParticipant
I’ve been away from he computer for a few days and just catching up on my reading and came across this thread. A while back even though I had used the term ‘ sustainable agriculture’ I wasn’t absolutely sure what the term really meant . I cant really remember where , but I am fairly certain it was on a USDA page that I got a real surprise. In the definition I found there was a paragraph or two about taking care of the land and proper treatment of animals and several paragraphs (over a page) of how farm workers should be treated and taken care of with a great deal of it refering to “undocumented workers” It might be worth while to investigate what the USDA thanks sustainable is versus what you think. The version I read seemed more of a social engineering plan than an agricultural one.November 23, 2012 at 5:25 pm #75825
I’ve been reading the responses and enjoyed them immensely but have struggled to get ideas of my own to gel into anything of substance but I’ll see if I can’t put something downright here.
It seems to me that we are using the word “sustainable” to mean “the ability to maintain” a practice. Until relatively recent history, if a practice depleted a resource either completely or faster than it could be regenerated, we (humans) just moved on to a new area where the same resources had not been depleted yet. But eventually there was no place left and we had become very efficient at how rapidly and completely we could harvest a resource. Instead of asking how long we could keep this up (sustain/maintain), we were already on the runaway train that wasn’t willing to contemplate changing how we live. In the book Collapse, Jared Diamond points out that’s what happened on Easter Island. Nobody asked if cutting down every last tree there was sustainable – and the end result was “no it was not sustainable” and the society disappeared/perished.
The main reason I posed this question is that the term unsustainable has been used by the global vegan movement to berate GMC’s animal ag program with data collected from farming systems completely unlike GMCs. Recognizing this argument is BS is one thing but figuring out what constitutes a sustainable practice is more difficult.
On a different note – it is interesting that after centuries of manipulating our environment and trying to “do it better than nature”, the best model for sustainability has been the natural ecosystems around us.November 23, 2012 at 11:21 pm #75814
I was thinking today that Sustainable Agriculture could be generally described as “implementing practices that improve the sustainability of an agricultural operation within the natural environment where it is located”.
Regardless of the particular pasture rotations, or energy sources, or crops that we each choose, I think that this is what we are all trying to do.
I realize that this is a bit circular, and it doesn’t address the fact that it allows for a wide array of definitions (Some people believe that petroleum and GMOs are necessary to sustain agriculture…….), but it seems to describe the concept in motion, as we have acknowledged that the crux of the issue is elusive, so making an effort toward an ideal is really what it comes down to…. and GMC is doing a damn good job of it.
CarlNovember 25, 2012 at 9:29 pm #75832Andy CarsonModerator
@near horse 37718 wrote:
On a different note – it is interesting that after centuries of manipulating our environment and trying to “do it better than nature”, the best model for sustainability has been the natural ecosystems around us.
Although i appreciate nature (as defined by what the world was or would be without mankind) I think of it as merely a “best guess” as to what might be sustainable. Geoff, you are certainly right in pointing out that there are many times that mankind has tried to create sustainable systems and failed. One might make the argument that these attempts began when mankind began, perhaps 200,000 years ago. Are there models of sustainability in some cultures and peoples? This is certainly debatable… I think that there are examples of hunter-gatherer societies that have sustained themselves largely unchanged (at least in my opinion) for long enough to claim sustainability. It is unclear how long a practice must sustain itself to be “sustainable” however, and some might argue that even ultra modern farming practices are indeed sustastainable and have proven this over a few decades (I don’t personally agree with this). My point is that human attempts at sustainability are not doomed to fail, despite many historical failures. There are a few small successes and many that are debateable.
Nature is often put forward as the ultimate model of sustainability. I can certainly see this point, but isn’t the fossil record proof of natures failures to create sustainable ecosystems and living creatures??? I believe it is. These failures go back to the beginning of the earth, some 3.5 billion years (>17,000 times as long a humans). During this time nature evolve a multitude of organisms, nearly all failures at sustainability. There is little doubt that many organisms were victims of competition from animals and/or organisms that were better fit for climate changes, geographic changes, novel adaptations, disease, migration of new species, or a million other factors. The point here being that nature, in my option, is not always sustainable unless it adapts (or is allowed to adapt) to new challenges that will always present themselves in our ever changing world. These adaptations might include new species and the extinction of species less fit to the new environment. If we look at nature as a discreet and unchanging set of species and ratios of species, than it is demonstrably unsustainable in the long term and have been unsustainable for much longer than humanity has been around.
This is indeed a slipperly slope. I recognize that if one says that change is natural, than any change might put forth as “natural” and possibly “sustainable.” I do not see it this way. I think we (as a species) need to think about and test the sustainability of our impacts on the earth. I think we need to use common sense as well as a scientific process. I am more sceptical of systems and impacts that different greatly from the way that the environment was before mankind, but if thoughly tested and verified, I am open to considering these just as sustainable as systems attempting to emulate nature.November 25, 2012 at 11:45 pm #75815
@Countymouse 37754 wrote:
…… The point here being that nature, in my option, is not always sustainable unless it adapts (or is allowed to adapt) to new challenges that will always present themselves in our ever changing world. …..
…I recognize that if one says that change is natural, than any change might put forth as “natural” and possibly “sustainable.”……
I was also thinking about this today. Nothing is truly sustainable without change. However, there is rarely a complete and abrupt change without significant transfer of what was there before. In other words, the building blocks of change do not come out of thin air, they come from the system, or species that failed.
With this in mind, sustainability must have some premise that doesn’t just preserve resources, it must leave enough of the existing system unchanged so that there are as many as possible options left for the future.
CarlNovember 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm #75826
I think nature is sustainable because it IS the rulemaker. Sort of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Since the first single-celled goober burped up in the primordial soup X billion yrs ago, there has never been evidence that life has not existed. That’s a pretty flexible, plastic and sustainable system. Now species have changed for sure. And I think at a very basic level we’re thinking of sustainability in terms of a “system that will allow humans to continue to exist” rather than “life” or “nature” exist. I’m pretty confident that life will continue long after humans are gone.
“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”
I know this is drifting off a bit but I subscribe to the “puntuated equilibrium” theory of evolution put forth by Stephen J Gould in that I think it describes how change/no change works. The theory is that during a period of ecological stasis (no catastrophic change in one’s environment), there is no strong selection pressure to elicit a change (we’re talking species at this point). But when there is a change in that stasis, those organisms that are fortuitously preadapted will dome to dominate the newly changed environment while those not so lucky will perish or at least become diminished in their role in the new environment. That is one theory regarding the long reign of dinosaurs – that they were the best adapted species (plural) to the environment at that time and that environemtn was static enough to allow them to dominate for over 130 million years (a frickin’ long time).
So while not discounting humans in this, they/we are the anomaly in that we know what many of the population regulators (disease and food availability are 2 that quickly come to mind) and manipulate them to our advantage. And that has been our (humans) adaptation but it is like bringing a gun to a knife fight. We have the distinct advantage and, like yeast fermenting sugar to make wine, keep growing and dividing, consuming more of the resource until we finally use them up (and make alcohol that poisons us – the yeast).
How does this have diddily to do with sustainability? I think that Jason’s comment about “not being able to sustain a decline” needs modification. Since we as humans have altered the balance here (and that was/is our adaptation since we’re slow, weak and wimpy)we are and will always be on some sort of a declining slope but we can lessen that rate by employing specific “life practices” that reduce the rate of resource depletion and environmental degradation – that’s where I find my definition of sustainable.
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