Finding the frequency for sustainable ag

Having worked full time in sustainable development within the corporate sector for the pimage22-copyast 15 years I have seen many changes, from a focus on energy, water, waste within the factory through to highly conceptual (and practical) ideas like the Natural Step from Sweden and Shared Value from Michael Porter at Harvard. With very tangible aspects like energy management, where both the energy and inherent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be accurately calculated, steps towards achieving reduced GHG emissions can measured and reductions tracked. But sustainable development is about more than GHGs.

Within the agricultural sector defining what sustainability is, and bringing it about is much more amorphous. Many farmers already desire sustainability as they wish to pass their lands and farm onto the next generation – so called ‘inter-generational equity’ – a sound principle for sustainable development. Certainly all farmers recognise that the preservation of the combination of soil quality (based on geochemistry) and soil health (based on soil biota) is essential.

There have been a number of systems and initiatives introduced globally to bring about more sustainable farming, from the biodynamic movement through to large scale ultra-controlled hydroponics – all have merits and drawbacks. In many cases, particularly in the developing countries, NGOs and others set out to introduce standards and practices to make things more sustainable – often with social equity being the driving factor, followed by economic and then environmental impacts, examples would include Fair Trade, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance and the SAI Platform.

All of these are steps in the right direction and are believed to bring about more sustainable agriculture. But for me this is only half the story.

For those of us old enough, think of a graphic equaliser on your Hi-Fi. By adjusting levers across certain frequencies the sound heard can be adjusted. The analogy is that only by measuring and improving the various aspects of sustainable agriculture: GHGs, water, biodiversity, soil quality & health, eutrophication, pesticide use and so on, can we achieve the right sound. To achieve this requires actually knowing that all the standards and practices introduced by NGOs and others are really working on the ground and improving sustainability. In different situations there may be some metrics which need to be set higher or lower than others, provided the overall goal is not compromised.

So if we are to know that farming is becoming more sustainable we need to measure, in a way that is rigorous, practical and widely accepted.

To that end we need a comprehensive, easy to use tool to help us, and this is the mission of the Cool Farm Alliance for environmental impacts. The Cool Farm Tool already does GHGs and biodiversity and will soon have water. Other metrics will follow, and improvements are ongoing. I see no reason in the near future why the Cool Farm Tool (or other impact measurement tools) will not be as common and useful a part of farmer’s toolkit as soil analysis and agronomists.

By Richard Heathcote, R&J Sustainability Consulting Ltd; Advisor to CFA