Sustainable agriculture cannot be clearly defined — yet it is a warm and fuzzy term to consumers, especially since the alternative is unsustainable and who wants to support unsustainable?
Some consumers call it nothing more than a PR buzzword, like natural and green.
It has an inherent rightness with consumers, particularly since someone else — the farmer — is the one charged with being sustainable.
Sustainability has now married itself to the environmental movement, and 97 percent of Americans call themselves environmentalists because they put bottles and cans in separate trash bins.
The call for sustainable agriculture is not noise from radical activists. Consumers really care, even if they do not know what they are talking about.
Consumers, however, are under no obligation to define sustainable agriculture nor to understand how farms operate under the demand to be sustainable.
Sustainable agriculture to the American consumer is like electricity and clean energy. Most consumers think electricity comes from the switch on the wall and want clean energy, although, like sustainable agriculture, they cannot clearly define it.
Pollster and sociologist Larry Kaagan made those observations and more when he spoke to the Cotton Board about the consumer’s perception of sustainable agriculture and farmer's reaction to it. He was invited to speak by longtime Cotton Board member and Courtland, Ala., producer Larkin Martin, who had heard Kaagan speak previously.
“Put a gun to my head and tell me to give you a one-sentence definition of sustainable agriculture, and I will tell you to pull (the trigger),” he joked. He can give fragments gleaned from concerned consumers: Plant the right crops in the right place; do not harm Mother Earth; do not use more water than is needed; don’t use up the land; and use less chemicals. Yet, none of those really define sustainable ag. It is actually a list of what most producers already practice.
Farmers react to the call for sustainability by saying they have always been about sustainability. By nature, producers say that is their role in life. He said farmers also are telling consumers, “We produce food and fiber for you cheap. Don’t ask what the heck we are doing. Leave us alone on how we get it done.”
“That is like throwing a bucket of gasoline on a fire,” he said. Consumers do not want to hear that. Superior and smug will not win over the consumer, he said. He was highly critical of Farm Bureau’s bumper sticker response to the issue of carbon footprints and carbon emissions. It reads, “Don’t cap our growth.”
Agriculture will not turn the tide away from calls for sustainable agriculture by telling consumers to leave farmers alone. It won’t work, and it will only get worse because Kaagan said the call for sustainable agriculture will only grow stronger over the next five years.
Farmers will not win over consumers by digging in their boot heels, says Kaagan.
For the sake of consumers, he says farmers should acknowledge the challenges of sustainable agriculture, and vow to continue to improve farming practices.
The term sustainable agriculture sticks in my craw like it does most others involved in ag. I know how farmers have advanced the science of product food and agriculture. It is a great story and some are trying to tell it. Farmers are great stewards. If they are not, they will not stay in business. However, Kaagan says the public does not care about that. Consumers only want to hear farmers say they are working to improve how they farm and admit they are working to save the planet from environmental demise. Don’t necessarily espouse specifics; just get on the environmental bandwagon — the same one consumers think they are riding because they recycle cans and bottles.
Seems a little dishonest, but who knows — maybe it’ll work.