To Be or Not To Be? And other questions.


Two articles that crossed my desk this past week made for an interesting contrast.

The first was an account and exploration of farmers in the UK who have abandoned maintaining organic certification. Apparently, it’s a trend, even in the face of rising demand for organic products.

The reasons ranged. High input and certification costs. The diminished importance of certification once you’ve established relationships with your customer base. Changes in the subsidies for organics. One farmer interviewed had lost faith that organic methods are his best path to soil health.

All these factors affected farms’ economic viability, but Michael Johnston, who farms sheep and cattle near Aberdeen, says money wasn’t his only reason for giving up: “It’s not just a question of the subsidies and the premiums. People always say life is complicated, but in this case, it really is.” In Johnston’s case, a reduction in subsidy was a factor, but so was his growing interest in soil biology and climate change, and his conviction that the organic system was not the best way to look after his soil.

The second was a post on the Environmental Defense Fund’s ag blog about the farmer Christine Hamilton and her effort to develop a sustainability plan customized for her farm.

I wanted to be able to articulate what growers are already doing in a quantifiable way, so that we could understand and set baselines for conservation activities. Once we have a baseline, we can evaluate whether or not our efforts are effective going forward.

So, we worked with our agronomy advisors from Agrinetix to create our own standards and processes for sustainability. We needed to understand what made sense for us economically, considering our people and communities, as well as the environment.

What does the sustainability management plan entail?

In order to determine which components to focus on for the future, we created a weighted ranking process that will help us gauge our priorities on several dimensions, including environmental dimensions such as wind erosion and water quality. We are looking at all of our operational elements and from there we will move toward evaluating emissions of greenhouse gases, air and water quality, energy usage, and social benefits such as community impacts.

It’s an evolving process and we are still working on what these definitions even mean as an industry, and what the impacts and implications will be for producers.

Energy use scored low for us on this first pass, for example, because the farm uses comparatively little electricity, so we won’t focus on improvements in that area right away. However, water quality and quantity scored high for us, so we know we want to work on that. The important thing is that all of these findings included direct input from our team, who are the right people to include when deciding which practices fit best for our organization.

There are a few things of interest here.
The first thing I’m struck with is the clumsy, binary nature of maintaining certification compared with actively addressing the sustainability challenges on your farm.

When Michael Johnston abandons organic certification, not only does he lose that method of signalling his commitment to sustainable farming, but he loses a formal model or road map to sustainable farming. Christine Hamilton on the other hand, not only has a formal road map, she has some confidence that her interventions – be they adopting practices, making investments or abandoning certain inputs or practices – will result in substantial improvements in her environmental impacts. Though that can become a powerful marketing message, it isn’t as easy to communicate as a certification. It’s ironic, that Johnston gave up certification in order to make choices that he sees as more sustainable, but lost an easy way to let people know of his commitment to sustainable farming.

This underlines the challenge of how best to signal sustainable practices to the public. Certification is easy to communicate and is a nice simple heuristic. The problem is that the prescriptions and prohibitions of a certification like “organic” may not even address the major environmental challenges a given farm faces. On the other hand, a certification scheme based on benchmarking and working on customized plans for investment and improvement would be unworkable to vouchsafe at any scale.

The trick is to come up with a set of simple rules, prescriptions and prohibitions (or not prohibitions) that captures the core of best practices and are nearly universally applicable.

I can’t say that I have any good answers at the moment, but I think Conservation Agriculture is a good place to start. But not even that is clear cut.

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  1. Marc,
    probably any simple answer is wrong. Farming is a diverse and complex business. Sustainability is a wonderful concept, but many of the most important parameters are devilishly difficult to measure. Variation is a constant. A consumer or an activist desires a nice +/- answer. The people who wrestle with biology, climate, regulation and markets to supply our food are not well served by any simple answers or metrics.

    • Understood. The upshot of that is that we still have no way of recognizing farmers who make an extra effort to be sustainable outside of organic certification. Recognition is a powerful motivator for human beings. And good heuristics help ideas move farther and faster.

  2. There is also another problem with Organic practices. The rules and expectations of Organic are not consistent with the laws of physics, to wit the conservation of matter. Organic continues to claim competitive yields while requiring no synthetic fertilizers be used. This runs your yield up against the limit of the rate Nitrogen that can be naturally fixed per hectare per growing season. Right now, Organic is circumventing this limitation by using nitrogen from animal manure whereby those animals were fed feed grown with synthetic fertilizers. Imagine, though, what would happen if Organic became dominant. That source of nitrogen would be choked off and so would the yields.

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