Sustainable agriculture. What does that phrase bring to mind? An organic farm? A farmers market? A barn with dairy cows in the pasture, pigs laying in the coolness of the mud and a few chickens running around foraging for food? How about a 2,500-hog farm or a farm with 2 million egg laying hens?
Of Ohio’s more than 75,000 farms, about half have farm animals. And it often seems there are just as many definitions of sustainability.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says sustainable agriculture is marked by its ability to satisfy human food and fiber needs, enhance environmental quality, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources, integrate natural biological cycles where appropriate, sustain the economic viability of farms and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
In other words, sustainability is complex.
Satisfying human food needs alone will become increasingly difficult. By the year 2050, the world population will boom to 9 billion people, which is an additional 2.5 billion mouths to feed. This translates to needing a 100 percent increase in food production. As Third World nations develop, they will likely rely more heavily on animals as a source of protein.
This increase in production has to be accomplished using fewer resources and potentially less land due to development. In order to meet this need, Ohio farmers are taking a variety of approaches: using technology and science, enhancing efficiency and practicing environmental stewardship, all while balancing society’s acceptance of livestock production practices.
In our state, agriculture is very diverse and opportunities abound. We are also very fortunate. We go to stocked grocery stores and have a choice of buying cage-free, organic, grass-fed or conventionally raised meat, eggs and milk. We have the ability to purchase food based on what we can afford and what we value. But if the consumer is unable or unwilling to pay enough to allow farmers to cover their costs, the system becomes unsustainable.
Sustainability ultimately doesn’t hinge on the scale or type of livestock farm.
Changes in how we raise animals are inevitable and necessary to feed a growing population. Livestock farmers and consumers must continue to build new relationships and work toward better understanding of each other so that we may evolve together to meet future challenges of feeding Ohio, the nation and the world.
Dr. Leah C. Dorman, a veterinarian, is director of food programs for Ohio Farm Bureau’s Center for Food and Animal Issues.
Dr. Leah C. Dorman