Tuesday Talks With Dr. Patterson

October 21, 2014

The term or phrase “sustainable agriculture” is a popular one today. However, I have often thought of the phrase as a pleonasm-the redundant use of words, such as free gift, true fact, cold ice, hot fire, or wet water. Most agricultural producers pursue their enterprises in a way to maximize profits, while protecting the environment, protecting the productive capacity of their natural resources for future generations, and being conscious of how their actions affect their communities. As such, they are living by the tenants of sustainability. Unfortunately, agricultural producers do not get as much credit as they deserve for being good stewards of the natural resources they use.

While some perceive sustainable agriculture to be a new and trendy concept, I would argue that it is very old. Remember, farmers have been practicing rotational crop patterns since 6000 BC, as a way of increasing production and, by happenstance, preserving and improving soil resources. However, our nation’s history has been punctuated by episodes that have reminded us to take stock on the sustainability of our agricultural production practices.

Experiences from the Dust Bowl era of 1930s, which saw extended drought conditions and extensive erosion of soils across the Central Plains, ushered in new thinking about soil conservation. The 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture entitled Soils and Men clearly defined the problem of soil protection as a sustainability problem:


Most people will agree that the broad underlying purpose guiding the use of soil resources should be “to maintain the highest possible standard of living for the people of the United States.” This includes secure farm homes, adequate and stable incomes for farm people, and a continuous and abundant supply of farm products for all of the people. In other words, the soil problem is really a problem of the well-being of people.

But it is not a problem for today only. The well-being of future generations must be secured also if the Nation is to continue to live. One of the greatest national objectives is to pass the soil on to our descendants as nearly unimpaired as possible. (USDA, p. 3)

Following this period, new federal policies promoted soil conserving farming practices. Recent adoption of reduced tillage practices is another example of farmers continued efforts to protect soil resources.

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, published in 1962 raised concerns about the use of pesticides and their impact on wildlife and human health. Her book eventually led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1971, which now has regulatory authority over the use of pesticides. Farmers also responded by adopting integrated pest management (IPM) practices in the 1970’s to make more efficient and environmentally responsible use of insecticides.

The most recent focus on sustainability is coming from the marketplace. Last week on October 15, the grocery chain Whole Foods Market announced that it will begin a ratings program for fruits, vegetables, and flowers to provide its consumers with more information on pesticide use, water use, farm worker welfare, and waste management, among other issues. This range of issues makes it clear that sustainability incorporates environmental, social, and economic dimensions. Whole Foods suppliers, including international suppliers, will be rated on a good, better, and best scale under the Responsibly Grown initiative. (Enoch)

It’s not, however, just upscale grocers like Whole Foods that are moving to impose heightened sustainability standards on its suppliers. Walmart actually beat Whole Foods to the punch, announcing on October 6 a new initiative to reduce the environmental impact of the food it sells. Walmart is now the largest food retailer in the United States and food is its largest business category. Walmart’s initiative will focus on reducing the overall cost of food, improving consumer access to healthy food, reducing the
environmental impact of food production, and improving food safety. Many observers argue that a company like Walmart has the market power to impose these standards on its suppliers. Walmart announced that it is working with nonprofit groups, food manufacturers like General Mills, and agribusiness firms like Cargill on this initiative. It is expected that this initiative will extend well beyond the produce section. (Strom)

These company imposed sustainability standards reflect what these firms perceive as growing consumer demand for food products that embody these environmental or sustainability attributes. Also, these firms are likely attempting to bolster their reputation in the market as sustainable or green companies, which is important to not only consumers, but also shareholders. Other grocery retailers are expected to follow with their own sustainability strategies. While this may have positive environmental and social benefits,
it could result in a confusing array of sustainability standards for producers supplying different buyers. Efforts to establish a broadly recognized sustainable agriculture standard, such as the one proposed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), seem to be spurting along. Suppliers will of course have a choice to make. They can choose to adopt required sustainability practices and compete to become a supplier of Walmart or Whole Foods. Or, they can seek other buyers who do not (currently) impose these types of requirements. In short, they can go green or go home. With the largest grocery retailer in the nation launching this initiative and others expected to follow, it may be time for some to go green. So again, farmers are being asked to pursue more sustainable agricultural practices.


Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1962.

Enoch, Daniel. “Whole Foods Launches Responsibly Grown Produce Rating System.” Agri-Pulse, October 15, 2014. (Accessed: October 19, 2014): http://www.agri-pulse.com/Whole-Foods-launches-Responsibly-Grown-produce-rating-system-10152014.asp

Strom, Stephanie. “Walmart Aims to Go Greener on Food.” New York Times, October 6, 2014. (Accessed: October 19, 2014): http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/07/business/new-walmart-program-aims-to-enhance-food-sustainability.html?_r=0

United States Department of Agriculture. Soils and Men. Yearbook of Agriculture 1938, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1938.


Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.