Often in discussions of sustainability, and the words “organic” and “sustainable” are used interchangeably. But these are two very different concepts, and confusion on this point is a factor that many people cite when expressing concerns about embracing “sustainability.” How do these differ?
First some definitions:
Organic: Only naturally occurring, or naturally synthesized, materials and compounds are used in agricultural production.
Sustainable: Those agricultural practices which we do today, must not preclude others from performing them in the same way in the future.
As we can see, these are greatly different. But to summarize the crucial difference, “organic” relates to inputs, while “sustainable” relates to outcomes. “Organic” is a relatively simple, black and white term. One either meets a verifiable set of standards, or one does not. “Sustainability” on the other hand is an extremely broad, and chaotic concept, not easily defined except in hindsight.
Are these simply semantic distinctions? Surely organic is just the first step to sustainability, isn’t it? The answer in both cases is “no.” Several examples could illustrate the difference, but since the AFA mission is to preserve agriculture in perpetuity, let us look at history’s all-time leading farm-killer: soil erosion. (The other leading farm-killer? Insufficiently protected personal property rights, although this is counterintuitive to those who would seek to save farms by diminishing these rights. But that is a topic for another day.)
The loss of productive topsoil has plagued us from the Fertile Crescent through to the American Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Agriculture cannot exist in perpetuity without addressing this issue. Much work in the field of sustainability has been done to advance “conservation tillage” and “no till” soil conservation practices, and significant successes have been made in soil retention and soil health over the past few decades. At this point we arrive at this tale’s central irony: these practices require greater utilization of herbicides than conventional tillage. And the practices that brought desertification to the Middle East and nearly to the Mid-West? These were organic, although the term was not in vogue as there were not yet chemical alternatives.
It is not my intent to claim that this proves that chemicals are good, and organic is bad. The evidence does not support the claim. But it does make the case that sustainability is a much more complex concept that organic, and that the right chemical used in the right way is consistent with sustainability. If we are to succeed in our daunting mission to preserve agriculture in perpetuity, we must be clear in our concepts and our words, and not leave unexplored options that may hold the key to success.