Veggie of the Week - Sustainable & Local
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Following the usurpation and adulteration of "organic" by the introduction of the "USDA Organic" standard, many producers and consumers of traditionally organic produce have begun emphasizing other aspects of traditional organic farming, mainly "locally grown" and "sustainable". Sustainability is the real foundation of traditional organic practice, with both the "locally-grown" precept and, particularly, the use of organic soil amendments and pest control methods, deriving from it.
A sustainable production method is one that can be used indefinitely without diminishing the quality or availability of inputs or the means of production, or significantly impacting other systems. As regards agriculture, this specifies a method of cultivation which could be used for years, hundreds of years, even, without adversely affecting the quality or quantity of water, soil amendments or pest control methods or the productivity of the soil, and with no significant impact on surrounding or coexisting natural flora and fauna. (You could, in other words, farm this way for a millenium, leave, and it would be difficult to know you'd been there.) These requirements largely determine the traditional organic farmer's choice of inputs: enhance the soil with the sort of things that make soil naturally fertile, control pests using natural means, promote diversity of flora and fauna and you enhance productivity without significant adverse environmental impacts. The typical consumer sees these choices as something consumer-friendly - no nasty chemicals to worry about - but the producer makes these choices at least as much for the sake of sustainability.
This is not how much farming is being done today, and there are lots of suggestions that current 'advanced' farming techniques may not be sustainable. There is, for example, the dearth of songbirds in Britain, so remarkable that even John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and onetime amateur boxer, has remarked it. Even more telling from the agricultural point of view is the sudden absence of bees in Britain and the Netherlands, and the consequent loss of crops due to poor pollination. Either or both of these might be down, at least in part, to non-agricultural causes. This is definitely not the case with ground water, which the lavish application of fertilizers to increase grain production has left undrinkable in much of Western Europe due to high nitrate concentrations. Nitrate levels in surface waters are also greatly increased, with the usual resulting degradation of stream and lake ecologies.
Another 'chemical' agricultural input is fuel. A fair amount of fuel is used directly for agricultural production in tilling, harvesting, local transport of goods and workers, etc.. Separate from this is the fuel used in delivering the product to the customer. Although Fairview Gardens have a tractor that runs on biofuel, this is exceptional; as yet very little of this fuel is from sustainable sources. This could change: the chemistry for producing fuel from biomass is fairly simple, but yield and distribution might pose difficulties. Producing fuel on the farm, and following traditional organic methods, which tend to be light on fuel, could make agricultural production fuel self-sufficient. Transport to market is another matter, and here we see where "locally grown" becomes part of "sustainable". It's one thing to haul a load of produce from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara - this could be fuelled with a five gallon bottle of home made methane - it's quite another to ship green beans from Colombia or fruit from Chile. As long as these products depend on North American markets it is difficult to see how this agriculture could be made sustainable, simply because of the amount of fuel required to get the product to market. Buying conventionally grown local produce is probably closer to sustainable than buying organic produce from Florida.
Locally grown requires local farms. Land, in the sense of acreage, not soil, is another agricultural input, and one which is becoming increasingly scarce in Southern California because it's being built on. The increased price of land makes it difficult to expand farms to meet increased demand and tempts some farmers to sell out while the political pressure for increased tax revenues makes it difficult to create sustainable agricultural reserves. At the same time, increased population density drives up the prices of housing and services, making it harder for farmers, and, particularly, for farm hands, to make ends meet.
Farm hands themselves might also be viewed as 'input'. Here, sustainability is a bit problematic. Essentially for ever Southern California agriculture has largely depended on immigrant labor. In the last hundred plus years this might have been Chinese, or from the Midwest, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican. Agricultural labor is fairly low on the job hierarchy, but laborers do not constitute a static "underclass". Historically, as farm laborers became established, many of them either became farmers themselves and hired other labor, or left agriculture for other work, or returned home to farm or open a business with money they'd saved. This worked well as long as the supply and demand for immigrant labor were roughly in balance and there was adequate social and economic room to accomodate those who wished to stay and move up economically, in the US, and, in their home countries, those who returned. It's not clear that these conditions exist now. The pressure to emmigrate is huge in Mexico, whose population has more than quadrupuled in fifty years without any corresponding investment in education or industry. Workers who save and return to Mexico find economic conditions which are not conducive to starting out on their own. As a result, more labor is coming to the US with the intention of settling here, and you find immigrant labor - not just Mexican - all over the place now. There are resulting counter pressures, both social and political, which threaten the supply of immigrant farm labor. The threat is not the result of justifiable fears* of job loss, but of the failure of politicians to understand the agricultural labor market and to work with other countries - principally Mexico - to establish legal procedures and economic changes to restore the balance between labor supply and demand and to make short-term immigration attractive.
Sustainable production is a concept that goes well beyond agriculture, but one which is often overlooked. The Economist magazine fairly recently claimed that it was nonesense to suggest that any industrial decision maker ever needed to consider prudent use of raw materials. Somehow, the author seemed to have overlooked fisheries (or forestry, for that matter), and we've already mentioned water. In fact, it goes well beyond economics. Sustainability is a concept so expansible that stretching it to encompass the global human population illuminates many current environmental and ecological concerns.
*Anyone who's tried knows it's virtually impossible to find competent, reliable indigenous farm labor in a normal farming environment.