Are farmers better than the New Zealand All Blacks?

We recently saw the New Zealand All Blacks crowned rugby world champions defeating the Australian Wallabies 34-17. Anyone who follows rugby will not have been surprised at the result – while the Wallabies were valiant in defeat, the All Blacks were a class above. What is perhaps a little more amazing is that the All Blacks lost just three games between winning the World Cup in 2011 and again in 2015. It got me to thinking – if ever there is a demonstration of sustainable excellence, the All Blacks must surely be it. Or are they …

Many of the world’s farmers have in fact been sustainable for generations, rising to the challenge of growing more from less.  Today’s farmers are able to feed a growing population with less resources than they had fifty years ago and in doing so have been able to put in place agronomic systems and processes that will adequately manage the impacts of climate change while feeding another 3 billion people by 2050. Sustainable excellence in anyone’s language!

Sustainable agriculture is a relatively new term and an emotionally charged one. Is there in fact any such thing as sustainable agriculture when others describe agriculture as a very unnatural act impacting a fragile natural ecosystem. Can we legitimately point to farmers being the planet’s ultimate conservationists? Surely we can because if we fail to farm sustainably, let’s face it, at best we will be without a job and at worst, we are doomed.  It simply makes no sense to suggest otherwise that farmers must be and can be, the ultimate custodians of the environment.

“Google” the term ‘sustainable agriculture’ and it will return you about 21 million results – so there is limited consensus on what the term actually means. Perhaps one of the more meaningful definitions which covers the notions of economic, social and environmental sustainability (i.e people, profit, planet) is provided by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change where it is defined as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term (to)

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole

A 1990 definition contained in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation suggests that a sustainable agriculture system must be “capable of maintaining productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems… must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound.”

The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform defines sustainable agriculture as “the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species”.

On the other hand, many definitions suggest that the use of pesticides or GM seeds is not in fact sustainable – with the use of such technologies often described as ‘industrial farming’.

The alternative as described here is in fact organic farming and both systems can be sustainable – they both just sit at different points on the sustainable agriculture continuum. And while farmers may rightly choose to farm organically, the reality is that with yields on average 30% lower than traditional farming (using chemicals and the best available seed technologies) and just 2% of the world’s agriculture production being organic, such farming systems simply cannot feed a growing world population and nor could those who need food the most necessarily be able to afford food produced in such a manner.  This is not an argument against organic farming, but rather a pragmatic statement of the facts.

And so we have to stop arguing over definitions and instead recognize that we must rely on the majority of the world’s farmers to manage our farming systems in a manner that pales to insignificance, the sustainable excellence of the New Zealand All Blacks.

Increasingly farmers are adopting the techniques required to reduce farming’s environmental footprint, to return what it extracts and to sustain the communities in which farming occurs.  Farmers are choosing from an armory of farming techniques including crop rotation, minimum till, paddock rotation, soil health programs, focusing on increasing the number of beneficial and pollinating insects, active resistance management, improving levels of crop diversity, introduction of cover crops and active nutrient management to ensure the sustainability of their farming enterprises.

There is widespread recognition of the large gaps between potential and actual crop yields which in many parts of Asia can be as high as 30% and every year, an estimated 12 million hectares of agricultural land, which could potentially produce 20 million tonnes of grain, are lost to land degradation, adding to the billions of hectares that are already degraded. It is also estimated that a third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted across the global food system. It is therefore clear that a holistic approach needs to be taken and we must collectively step away from the culture of blame and apportioning responsibility for the problem to taking collective accountability for the solutions.

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change perhaps best sums up the challenge when it states, “We need to make concurrent efforts to establish climate-resilient agricultural production systems, make efficient use of resources, develop low-waste supply chains, ensure adequate nutrition and encourage healthy eating choices. Together, these will constitute a sustainable food system. Intensification of food production must be accompanied by concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture to avoid further acceleration of climate change and avert threats to the long-term viability of global agriculture. Making these changes, although technically feasible, requires urgent, collective and substantially increased action internationally, nationally and locally”.

It is interesting therefore to see the collective efforts of the world’s major agricultural input providers in this space. Monsanto describes itself as a ‘sustainable agriculture company’ with a commitment to ‘growing food in a sustainable way’. Syngenta has its “Good Growth Plan” – a series of six commitments to help ‘sustainably feed a growing population’, while Bayer Crop Science talks about ‘farming’s future … balancing productivity and the environment’. Dow Agro Sciences describes solutions for the ‘growing world’ with a commitment to ‘increasing crop productivity through higher yields, better varieties and pest management controls’.  DuPont is committed to improving global food security through improving yields and crop nutrition while BASF aims to harness innovation, describing farming as ‘the biggest job on earth … keeping farmland healthy for the next generation’.

Collectively the ‘big six’ have annual sales of around $80 billion and so if all of them are aligning around something we should probably take notice – and they are all aligning around the importance of sustainable agriculture.  It makes sense to do so because without sustainable agriculture, like the customers they serve, they simply do not have a business into the longer term.

So argue about the means, but realistically is is difficult to argue against the objective.

Now while the marketing budgets of these organizations ensures such information is presented in a very engaging manner, we should applaud the commitment and resist the temptation to put it down as simply green-washing.  Many of the commitments are measurable and organizations are being held accountable for delivery, by their shareholders, by independent auditors and by the public which ultimately determines their long term freedom to operate.  These companies cannot afford to do anything but ensure the sustainability of their own operations of of the farmers whom they serve.

So let’s stop debating which system is sustainable and which is not.  We are all agreed there is no alternative because according to a bumper sticker seen in the US Corn Belt – “At least once in your life you’ll need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher, but three times a day, every day, you need a farmer”.

Let’s focus our resources on balancing different systems, focusing our research, driving the development of adequate infrastructure and ensuring the appropriate transfer of knowledge, technology and innovation into the hands of those that can really deliver sustainable – the world’s farmers. Their performance over many years makes the recent record of the world champion All Blacks look pedestrian.

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