Sustainability is not a zero sum game

Sustainability is not a zero sum game

I get really hung up on the word sustainable.  It’s like George Bernard Shaw’s description of the U.S. and Britain as “two countries divided by a common language.”

There’s no disagreement about goals… the SDG’s lay them out nicely: zero hunger, reduced inequality, rising living standards … nothing to argue about there.

We’re united in our aspirations – we need to safely feed the world while taking care of the planet … nothing to argue about there.

But, there is a disconnect on how we get there – and it comes down to the different ideas we have about what “sustainability” means.

If you are an economist like me you probably want to ask, is it economically sustainable – can we generate a return on investment necessary to warrant ongoing investment while providing returns to your owner

But of course, equally, is it environmentally sustainable – does it minimize the impact on scarce resources, does it improve biodiversity or reduce the use of land or water.

And just as importantly, is it socially sustainable – does society really want it – are the means by which the product is produced acceptable to those who might consume it.

All valid questions and the answer is, it must be all three.

But we have to move away from the notion that one system or another is more sustainable.

We need to have one objective, with clear measurable targets, that can be achieved through the operation and indeed the cooperation of different agricultural systems.

Let’s move away from the zero sum debate that characterizes the sustainability discussion – because every system – organic and conventional, natural and synthetic, open pollinated and GM – can contribute to the achievement of sustainable food production.

Technology in all its guises can and must contribute to sustainable food production – and indeed it has.

Stanford University estimates that the yield improvements brought about by technological advances in agriculture have saved 1.76 billion hectares of land from cultivation since the 1960s – that’s an area larger than Russia, or three Amazon rainforests, or four European Unions.

Technology on the farm has also kept 161 gigatons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere – which over 33% of all the carbon released by humans since 1850.

Equally since the 1960s, the USDA estimates that pesticide toxicity has decreased by a factor of 30 and continues towards zero.   And today we talk about grams per hectare, not kilograms per hectare.

My point is, business and innovation has delivered these improvements in a policy environment that has supported innovation.

Thus in my industry, organophosphates were largely replaced by pyrethroids which were largely replaced by neonicotinoids, whose mode of action and toxicity is far less than predecessor chemistry.

But unfortunately, bad policy can reverse such trends and thus we see farmers in Europe reverting to the spraying of pyrethroids in the absence of neonicotinoids, which is much worse for the environment, and by the way much worse for bees.

Bad agricultural and environmental policies have turned Europe, one of the great agricultural regions of the world, into a net importer of food – importing about 35 million hectares worth of food each year – which is an area about the size of Germany.

Europe is effectively exporting its environmental footprint – often to less environmentally sustainable areas in the developing world

What we need is sensible policies and clear targets from governments and we need business to deliver outcomes that are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.  And we cannot arbitrarily rule out whole sectors of innovation.

Equally, we in business need to be held entirely accountable and responsible for the outcomes we deliver. Its why in 2013 my company, Syngenta committed to the Good Growth Plan – six commitments to transparently increase yields while not increasing the use of land, water or chemicals, to improve biodiversity and soil health and to  advance smallholder productivity and ensure safe use of our products worldwide.

And each year we are independently audited to hold us to account, and we challenge others to do the same.

But it’s not enough. We need a wider shared vision of what sustainability means and go after it together. The SDGs provide the roadmap, but they don’t dictate the approach.

We believe that the digital transformation of agriculture will revolutionize production as profoundly as powered tractors and harvesters in the 20th century. We’re getting to where we can apply the exactly needed amount of fertilizer, water and crop protection – seed by seed — according to each seed’s genetic characteristics, location, soil conditions. We now employ more data analysts than breeders.

And as Peter Drucker said, what isn’t measured can’t be improved.

It’s time to get beyond the headlines and the antagonism. It’s time to really work together with a clear sense of what the future of food production looks like and will actually be.

Certainly let’s have the debate – have it in open and be informed by science, by technology and by public opinion.

But let’s also have specific measures and quantifiable targets – understanding the contribution that different systems can make – and then go after them together.

Because for all of our differences, that should be something we can all agree on. I think our very future depends on it.



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