Increasingly, people are becoming interested in the sustainability of our food system. A 2009 Green Shopper Study by the accounting firm Deloitte found that, “Sustainability considerations either drive or influence the buying decisions of more than half the shoppers interviewed.” Meanwhile, far fewer consumers have direct experience with the modern agricultural system. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture points out, less than 2% of the U.S. population works full time on the farm – and far fewer than that are responsible for the majority of agricultural production.
This trend is not negative, but a problem is emerging: People are becoming distrustful of large, remote producers of food.
At the time of the 2000 Census, America’s population was nearly 80% urban and this percentage continues to grow. Adding to this dynamic are the filter of news reports that greatly magnify any problem that arises within the food system, a growing consumer focus on obesity, health and processed foods, and the claims by some that modern farming is destructive and the result is an increasing distrust in a food system most Americans barely understand.
It is expected and commendable that people want to know where their food comes from and to be assured that it is safe, healthy and grown in a way that is good for the environment and for the community. For many people, the term “sustainability” sums up these desires. Unfortunately, sustainability is a term that already has numerous definitions attached to it – resulting in confusion and often, disagreement about the term’s meaning. Applied to agriculture, sustainability has become synonymous in the minds of many with “small, local and organic.” Increasingly, consumers believe that these practices are necessary means to accomplish safe, healthy, environmentally-friendly and pro-community products.
Here is where a problem occurs: While the goals that most of us share for agricultural sustainability are good and achievable, the current limited prescription of how and who is considered sustainable is not. That is to say, when agricultural sustainability gets reduced down to only a few practices – that are in some cases inefficient – the very values that are championed by such a system are actually put at risk when considering the global scale of the challenges we face. Simply put, inefficiencies are economically and environmentally unsustainable on a global scale.
What is considered sustainable changes greatly if we factor in the economic growth and food demands of developing countries and the nearly 3 billion extra people expected to join the planet by the year 2050. If these inescapable facts are considered, then it becomes critical to keep existing large-scale, efficient agriculture intact and thriving in the U.S. or else we shall face far greater losses of rainforests, prairies, and wetlands around the world along with an increase in food scarcity and hunger. The unrelenting facts of a growing population, finite resources and limited amounts of arable land demand that technology and scalability will be critical parts of any real pursuit of sustainability.
In coming posts on this site, we will go through a list of important conservation and pro-community practices that TBL Members are pursuing as part of their business sustainability. We believe that these practices should be part of how we define sustainability more broadly and that by embracing this way of farming we will have a better opportunity to meet the triple bottom line of success: economic, environmental and social.
 Deloitte (2009). Finding the Green in Today’s Shoppers: Sustainability Trends and New Shopper Insights. http://www.deloitte.com/us/greenshopperstudy09
 Dimitri, Carolyn, Effland, Anne, & Conklin, Neilson (2005, June). The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy Message. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib3/eib3.htm
 U.S. Census Bureau. United States Census 2000.