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What does sustainability mean?

29 October 2020

When I did an internet search, I found that there were just under one billion ideas about what sustainability means.  The classic dictionary definition is “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” or the “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”. 

Sustainability is probably one of today’s most used words and probably one that has lost its meaning through overuse.  It is a similar situation with regenerative farming, which means many different things to people.  It is also a phrase that has been overused and abused, and lost its original meaning.  Regenerative farming has just become a catchphrase for anyone who wants to be associated with improving the environment.

The trap that we all fall into is looking at the definition of sustainability, rather than looking at the actions that are sustainable. “You will know them by their deeds, not their words” or “by their fruits” as it is written in the Bible. 

The situation is very much like what is organic and what is certified organic. You can define the word organic, but if you want a “certified organic” product, it is not the definition but the growing system that is certified.  In other words, it is the way the product is grown that defines it, not the meaning of the word.  This has to be how we treat sustainability, not by the meaning of the word but by the acts that define it.

An example of sustainability in action, and one that is not environmental sustainability, is the United States (US) Government’s announcement that it is providing a further US$500 million in the fourth round of what they call Food Box funding. 

This programme fits the dictionary definition perfectly: the funding is being maintained at a certain rate and started with the impact of Covid.  Greg Yielding, executive vice president and chief executive for the National Onion Association, is reported as saying: “The coronavirus has taken a great toll on the onion industry. A good 50% of the market was lost by food service being shut down. The USDA’s program, Farmers to Families Food Box, has helped Farmers put food directly in the hands of Americans in need. The program has distributed over 100 million food boxes.” 

This programme is very much a win-win.  The farmers stay in business, and people who are not financially well off get given healthy food to eat.  So, both farming and people are being sustained by this programme, which continues the US Government’s purchase of combination boxes made up of fresh produce, milk and meat.

We do not have a similar programme in New Zealand, and it is something that should be explored further.

Programmes, such as the US one, enable people to keep growing produce so that we can all eat healthy food.  But the key point with such programmes is people are able to stay on the land, and have the money to undertake action that mitigates climate change and promote water quality.  It is the enduring work of land owners to improve their own natural environment that is my definition of sustainability.  This is intergenerational and long lasting but will not happen if the land owner has to walk away from their farm, with their enduring stewardship of the land lost. 

Real environmental sustainability is not maintaining operations at a certain level as defined by the dictionary.  It is costly and time-consuming actions by each landowner to make a lasting change to their immediate environment.  Real environmental sustainability is not achieved by regulation or rules that dictate change.  It is achieved by each one of us making the long-lasting changes that we can.  So, while the US programme may keep growers in business, it does not add to the achievement of environmental sustainability, unless each landowner is themselves committed to active and continual change.

My definition of sustainability is not a passive dictionary definition.  When it comes to the environment, it is each of us on our land – whether we live in town or in rural New Zealand – proactively making positive environmental changes.  Sustainability is not the maintenance of the status quo.  It is an activity that requires money and time – and for money and time to be available, we need our growing and farming businesses to be profitable, and not to be bound up in red tape.

Mike Chapman, Chief Executive