By Lee Warren, Executive Director of Asheville’s Organic Growers School
By applying strategies of regeneration and resilience to modern agriculture, sustainability is not only achievable— it suggests that all of us will see the benefits.
In a phrase, sustainability applies to something that can be carried on indefinitely, though in common language it is often meant to imply that a particular product, practice, or lifestyle avoids undue environmental damage. Another way to define sustainability is that balance of factors which can both meet human needs, while also considering and enhancing the natural world and improving human lives. In its ideal form, it is a holistic approach that takes into account the good of all involved.
The three significant components or pillars to sustainability are: Economic, Environmental, and Social. These interdependent areas serve to balance and reinforce each other and can be used as a test to determine if something is indeed sustainable. Other names for these three components: “triple bottom line,” “people, planet, profits,” and “earth care, people care, fair share.” Some examples include:
Sustainable Development is a field that seeks to meet development goals, but at the same time protecting the natural ecology and ensuring prosperity for local inhabitants.
Sustainable Architecture seeks to build with an ecological approach to materials, energy and conservation, and to engage and employ people in humane ways.
Similarly, Sustainable Agriculture seeks to promote farming that considers the entire soil-food web, teaches farmers to thrive and prosper, and encourages efficiency of production and increased yield.
Over time, the word sustainability has been watered down through general overuse and misunderstanding, but also by “greenwashing”—a term implying deceptive marketing and disinformation perpetuated by corporations to promote themselves in a positive light without actually representing credible ecological practices.
Some of us in the sustainability and environmental movements have taken to using words other than “sustainable,” such as “regenerative” or “resilient,” to convey a more active approach to this holistic mindedness. Regenerative means that instead of leaving something “no worse for wear,” we actually improve the system and make it better than it was before. Resilient means that we create systems that are so robust and healthy that they can easily absorb disturbances and recover quickly after damage.
In the case of agriculture, our goal as a sustainable food and farming organization serving the Southern Appalachians is to help create regenerative and resilient systems in our Western North Carolina community. Organic Growers School stands for small-scale, regional, and organic food production, as an alternative to industrial and global food practices.
The good news is that from all sectors, research is showing that sustainable agriculture, in the form of local food systems, offers promise for addressing our failed food systems. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 2013 recommended a rapid and significant shift away from “conventional, monoculture-based… industrial production” of food that depends heavily on external inputs, such as fertilizer, agro-chemicals, and concentrate feed. Instead, they suggested the goal should be “mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers and foster rural development.”
Another piece of good news is that the more we study nature, the more we are coming to understand that biological systems are way smarter than we are. Healthy wetlands, forests, and prairies have known how to be viable, productive, and resilient for a very long time. If we actually learn to model and mimic them, they will help not only to improve the environment and the health of humans, but to increase our bottom line as farmers.
For example, regenerative agriculture experts are discovering that if we build in diverse cover crop rotations, manage grazing animals on pasture in “herd-like” patterns that mimic wild ruminants, always cover the soil, and limit our tillage, miraculous things happen. Water infiltration increases, nutrients recycle, crop yields and production increase, and everyone and everything on the farm is healthier. And on top of that, the farmer makes more money, keeping her or him in business for longer with less stress.
And it gets even better. Science is showing that as we increase the health of our soil, we increase the health of humans in ways we never imagined possible. Apparently, the connection between the microbial communities of the soil and the very similar biome of human gut flora are the basis for either harmony and symbiosis or depletion and disease. When the soil is full of life-supporting probiotics, the food grown there is an ally to us not only with regards to digestive health and nutrient absorption, but also in building our immune response and ability to overcome chronic illness.
These new fields of regeneration and resilience are teaching us that sustainability doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, when we take into consideration the whole, chances are high that every part will benefit.
Lee Warren is Executive Director of Asheville’s Organic Growers School
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