Perhaps it’s the time of year, with harvest winding down, or perhaps it’s because I’ve put my own garden to bed for the season, but my thoughts have turned to the “sustainability” debate that continuously nags at our food system.

First off, what is “sustainable” anyway? The closest I could come to a definition is this: “Sustainable practices are 1) economically viable, 2) environmentally sound and 3) socially responsible.” The first one tends to get overlooked. It’s the third one that pulls the focus astray. That’s where such issues as lifestyle preferences, ethical practices, biodiversity, community well-being and animal well-being (regarding farm animals) enter the debate. 

The definition of “natural” is even more elusive. As one researcher put it, “The challenge is in communicating to an audience that has come to believe the ‘natural’ way is the most sustainable way.” A combination of incomplete science, a distortion of science and junk science has led to consumers receiving half truths on this issue, at best.

As of late October, the world’s population tallied 7 billion. What kind of productivity is required to sustain that population? We keep saying “we can feed the world,” yet there are still hoards of hungry and undernourished people around the globe. We know that by 2050 there will be 2 billion more, along with less accessible land, more limited water and energy supplies, as well as a changing climate.

My community garden plot offers a snapshot of those who try to but don’t understand food production. In the four years I’ve participated I have seen a variety of folks try their hand at it. They start out gung-ho to “produce their own food — naturally.” It quickly becomes clear how much work it requires and what a challenge each season presents. There’s more to it than sowing a few seeds, adding some water and waiting. There’s always plenty of disappointment that something didn’t grow well enough or that conditions were too wet, too hot or too whatever.

Many never quite grasp the timing issues of planting, weeding, watering and harvesting, much less understanding varieties, pests and diseases; even fewer relate them to the bigger scale of what farmers face.

More than half don’t return for a second year: “It was too much work,” “It takes too much time” or “The results weren’t worth it.” Not even the best plot would sustain the gardener and his/her family for more than a few months.

I will admit there’s no substitute for a garden-ripened tomato. But while things like gardening and local, natural/sustainable food concepts may be fun — even nostalgic — they have to be questioned in terms of feeding the masses. Many Americans have many choices, but others do not and the danger is in taking options away.  

Recently a restaurateur friend of mine took her 8-year-old daughter to visit a local, natural, sustainable farm. They had a “wonderful day” feeding chickens, picking apples. “The farmer even took us on the tractor out to where the pigs were. It was amazing,” she relayed. 

Right, and they returned home not really experiencing daily life on a farm. Go back and visit on Jan. 15 and tell me what you think. But such home-spun images are everywhere. In photos, the days are always sunny, warm and dry; the animals are clean and bright-eyed. They don’t show you rainy, muddy days or ice and snowstorms. They also don’t show you the impact of viruses that these animals also encounter, nor the parasites or predators.  

I grew up on what would be considered a “natural” — even organic — farm; I still own a portion of it. While I relish my childhood there, even back then it wasn’t for everybody. In the summers I hoed thistles, baled hay and fed pigs. Meanwhile, my town peers played, rode bikes and went swimming.  

People have been moving from farms to cities in droves since the turn of the last century. There were 10 kids in my mom’s family; only one (my mom) remained on the farm. She gardened, kept chickens and canned — not because she wanted to but because she had to.

Today, those are all romantic endeavors that urbanites think would make for a better life. They blame modern or corporate or factory farms for the world’s woes from global warming to health issues, yet neither they nor their ancestors remained on the farm to feed themselves. 

Access to a varied, abundant, low-cost and convenience-oriented food supply available 24/7 has allowed Americans to go to their kid’s soccer game, sleep in on Saturdays or take a vacation (another luxury on a farm).

In what other area of life would people embrace 1950’s, 1960’s or even 1970’s technology? In automobiles when seatbelts were a luxury and airbags were non-existent? Certainly not in medicine — who would go to a doctor who used 1970’s technology today?

I’m writing this just after Food Day wrapped up, designed to promote “sustainable food,” and just ahead of a new event — The Conference to End Factory Farming — on Oct. 27 in Arlington, Va. It involves the usual suspects — Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, Whole Foods — but there are some less-familiar ones too. It’s worth looking into — http://factoryfarmingconference.org.

Many good minds are studying pork’s piglet-to-plate sustainability lifecycle. Chances are good that 2012 will bring with it a more complete truth about modern pork production. However, the challenge to get that message across will still exist.