Opinion: Rethinking Sustainability in Modern Agriculture

The future need for sustainable agriculture is huge. With an already enormous world population that is rapidly growing, the future of sustainable agriculture, to a large degree, will revolve around yield levels. We need to be able to produce a lot of healthy, nutritious food in a sustainable way that can continue over generations.

There are good reasons for optimism from an agricultural perspective. Modern agriculture, with its future potentials, is one of the most innovative fields of our time. New ideas of producing crops in resource-efficient ways consistently come to light and are implemented. The combination of game-changing concepts, tools, and technology seem to stand a good chance of overcoming future challenges. The focus on products that can help this happen is vital toward that end. Fertilizers and inputs are among the most central of these products.

Of course, there are challenges. One is to protect the environment from adverse effects and to maintain ecosystem functioning. Another is to handle the concerns for greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

Many experts argue that we must minimize environmental impact. This seems to be the consensus among the public as well, at least in the Western world. This is deeply problematic because it is not driven by a rational concern for mankind or the environment. Minimized environmental impact cannot, in and of itself, be the main goal. The main goal must be human flourishing and minimized human suffering. Of course, environmental concerns are important aspects that must be weighed when striving toward that goal. But in the end they are only factors in a bigger picture. In other words the environmental goal must be as environmentally friendly as possible when working toward human flourishing.

In real life there are no absolute solutions, only trade-offs. When evaluating a practice, one cannot simply compare it to a utopic scenario in which there are no bad effects. Any meaningful, serious, and realistic evaluation must be based on relevant comparisons. First, the negative side effects must be compared to the positive main effects. When the sum of all effects is a net positive, the product or practice is worthwhile. Second, regardless of what one thinks about a practice or product, we can only compare it to the alternatives we have at hand. And the comparison must be holistic and fair; pros are compared with pros, and cons with cons.

In some cases there are no viable options at hand, in which case we must stick to what we’ve got, whether we like it or not, until we have viable options. That is the case with fossil fuels.

This leads to the question of how we should define the concept of sustainable agriculture altogether. Most people today think of non-conventional or organic farming when they hear the word sustainable. I think this is mainly due to the ideological discourse in the debate.

So, let’s look at a couple of facts about fertilizers, as they have significant bearing on the concept of sustainability:

  • Modern fertilizers enable us to feed the world; organic fertilizers simply can’t do that. Even if we were to close that cycle, the world simply doesn’t contain enough organic fertilizers to produce a sufficient amount of food for a growing population.
  • Modern fertilizers are more environmentally friendly than organic ones. The levels of nutrient leaching are much worse for organic fertilizers.
  • Modern fertilizers can be used with extreme precision and accuracy to maximize resource use efficiency, while organic fertilizers cannot.

How then can the use of modern commercial fertilizers be considered unsustainable by so many people? I think there are two answers to this:

First, we must realize that a lot of people who oppose the use of modern fertilizers are simply ignorant. Worse, some facts are unpopular simply because they make no good fit in the ideology of modern environmentalism. The second reason has to do with how we view sustainability. It has nothing to do with labels. The word is a philosophical term that needs to be well defined. Sustainable agriculture simply means — enough food for humanity, from a production system that can be perpetuated, in which the benefits exceed the disadvantages. Therefore, our job is to push facts and to make known that sustainable agriculture is about human flourishing and the prevention of human suffering for generations to come.

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