Sustainability in food production must incorporate economics as well as environmental considerations, says Dave Daley, associate dean of the College of Agriculture at ChicoStateUniversity.  

“We define sustainability as a three-legged stool that must be balanced," Daley notes. He says sustainability must include or address the following:  

  • Without long-term economic sustainability (profit), producers cannot stay in business.
  • We must consider the environment in our management decisions, and most of us do.
  • We need to consider the social ramifications of our management decisions.  In other words, if we do something that harms the community in which we live – destroys jobs for example – then the practice isn't sustainable.
Daley points out that all agricultural producers intend to be sustainable. "It is important for people to realize that those who grow food also live on the land, their children eat the food and drink the water and are part of the community," he adds. "There is every reason for agricultural producers to practice sustainability.  Most of them do – if they don't, they will not be in business for the long term."
Of course, no system is perfect, and that includes agriculture. Mistakes are a part of life, he notes. "There are always examples of bad management, but those producers are the exception not the norm. We will continue to learn as we move forward. Agriculture, by its very uncertain nature, is a matter of trial and error," Daley says.

One common mistake that people tend to make is to assume that to be sustainable you must be a "small farmer," Daley says.  There are both small and large sustainable operations and non-sustainable operations.  "It is not a matter of the size of the operation but is based on the type of practices employed.  I see more over-grazed, poorly managed livestock on small 'ranchettes' then I ever have on a large-scale operation," he notes.

Some of that can be associated with a general lack of knowledge and familiarity of agricultural practices. "The second mistake is that there is an absolute anti-technology bias. Technology can be good or bad and needs to be considered in the long-term context of the three-legged stool (economics, environment and social)," Daley says. There are many examples of where technology has improved sustainability and related practices, he points to vaccine technology as an example.

“Finally, it shouldn't be a crime to make a profit," he emphasizes. "There is a group within the sustainability circle, at the fringe, that uses sustainability as a euphemism for anti-capitalism." Sustainable systems must generate a profit, or can be expected, they won't be sustained.