Saxon Holt, photographer working in garden with Blind Ambition

I sat in the crowd nursing my concerns about the very concept of measuring sustainable agriculture when Jonathan Kaplan of the National Resource Defense Council said the work must go forward because there is a lot of money waiting to invest in this. In my mind, I was already questioning how economics, one of the three E’s of farming sustainability (Ecology, Economy, Equity) fits into the the broader concept of our planet’s sustainability, when the light bulb went off. It’s about money.

This term “Sustainable Agriculture” needs to be defined so that it carries an official stamp of marketing approval for corporate America. The Leonardo/ANSI project includes 56 stakeholders including Wal-Mart and Unilever. Are these guys gonna invest money in sustainable agriculture unless it gets them a marketing edge ? Sadly, we know that answer.

I know such recognizable certifications like LEED do prod businesses to do the right thing, but think sustainability is much too big an issue to be reduced to a label in a supermarket. Sustainability must be done, economics or not.

Even the idea of defining sustainable agriculture in scientific reductionist terms is wrongheaded in my philosophic mind. The same scientific sensibility that reduced a plant’s need to NPK now seeks to define sustainability in such a way that regulators can measure it.

But perhaps the biggest reason we should not waste the policy makers time and burden the farmer with compliance is because we cannot really know what sustainable agriculture is. We, as humans, have not been farming long enough to really know how our farming practices truly affect the planet. To look at what farming has done is to be sickened. Even the best organic farmers can not be sure what sustainability is, other than a moving target.

If the market needs a term to validate best practices and spur better farming, let’s build on the work of defining Organic, a description that does not carry as much meaning as many farmers would like. Perhaps ‘Sustained Organic’ or some other thoughtful word that does not presume we can define sustainability would allow eco-farmers, the actual practitioner of sustainability’s best practices, have a marketing edge without claiming “the answer” for our future.

– Saxon Holt