What is sustainability? To University of Georgia Extension plant pathologist Bob Kemerait, it’s the capacity to endure.

“It means to be able to keep doing what we’re doing over the long term — to maintain our ability to grow crops and to feed the world,” said Kemerait at the Southern Peanut Growers Conference held recently in Panama City, Fla.

Three things are required of a sustainable system of agriculture, he says. “It must be environmentally sustainable, it has to be socially sustainable, and we have to meet the economic demands. Because none of us do what we’re doing because it’s just fun — we do it because we have to feed our families.”

Many times, says Kemerait, the term “sustainability” is mistakenly used interchangeably with “organic.”
“There’s nothing wrong with organic, but that’s not what most of us do in agriculture. Organic may be sustainable, but you don’t have to be organic to be sustainable,” he says.

Organic farming utilizes crop rotation and biological pest control but does not utilize synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

“The kind of sustainability I’m talking about includes the use of synthetic pesticides. We may not be organic, but we can be sustainable. While there are agricultural systems that are sustainable and organic, that’s not what most of us do.”

Kemerait says that whenever he hears someone in the agricultural community say that they’re going to talk about sustainability, he tends to become defense because he doesn’t expect it’ll include conventional agriculture.

“USDA has defined sustainable agriculture as 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,” he says. “It’s not enough just to be organic, traditional or sustainable, but you have to meet the requirement that you are able to meet the needs of the population. At the same time, we want to enhance environmental quality and make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources. Just because we don’t practice organic farming doesn’t mean we don’t want to do those things.”

If you can’t make a living for your generation and for the next generations, it’s not sustainable, says Kemerait.