The Sustainability Question

In Ohio, we will have multiple opportunities to get the issue of a sustainable food system right—from what’s good for our families to our communities to our planet.

That’s because we are going to have to answer more than one question.

Ultimately, how we approach the issue of food is a matter of priorities. Hunger advocates might say first and foremost that we need affordable food and lots of it. Environmental advocates may focus on protecting the land and water. Nutritionists are counting calories and a host of other food attributes. Foodies hunger for quality, and locavores treasure a cultural connection to what they eat. The list goes on and on.

Ohioans embody each of these values to varying degrees, but in the end, many shoppers simply want to know that their purchase is good for themselves and their families.

It’s this web of values, translated through the checkout counter, that guides how Ohio farmers remain economically sustainable. But that’s not enough. Ohio farmers have also embraced transparency in food production to achieve social sustainability. And because agriculture is essentially biology, sustainable approaches must also be verified by science.

Over the next 40 years, a booming world population will demand as much food as was produced in the last 8,000 years, challenging how Ohioans think about what we eat and grow.

Various methods of food production differ on how well they can address each individual need. So the question isn’t which single approach is right, but how can Ohio capitalize on the strengths of all of them to meet a wide range of consumer priorities.

Urban Farming:
Opportunities: Urban farming can provide nutritious, fresh fruits and vegetables, especially in underserved areas. An Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center analysis said Cleveland could meet 46 percent to 100 percent of its demand for fresh produce if vacant lots, residential spaces and commercial rooftops were used to grow food.

Challenges: While they can supplement nutritional needs, urban farm systems are unlikely to produce adequate calories for large numbers of people. Most of the population growth in coming years is expected to take place in cities, placing additional strains on infrastructure. Small urban food plots will require more people to become involved in producing their own food.

Intensive Agriculture:
Opportunities: In response to fears of global food shortages in the 1960s, Norman Borlaug earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his research on plant genetics that improved crop yields in what was described as the Green Revolution. By using plants that responded well to inputs such as fertilizer, Ohio farmers have been able to grow more food on limited land while economies of scale often led to more efficient use of resources.

Challenges: While many agree that the first Green Revolution helped feed a hungry world, some say the system as it was originally developed relied too heavily on synthetic inputs and fossil fuels to be sustainable for the future. In essence, the next Green Revolution will have to be “greener.”

Extensive Agriculture:
Opportunities: Extensive agriculture minimizes reliance on synthetic inputs by making use of natural systems and human labor. Often this means low startup costs and is attractive for small-scale farming.

Challenges: Extensive agricultural systems tend to use more land, which on a global scale could pressure natural ecosystems currently not touched by agriculture. Some argue that without intensifying production, there is simply not enough land on the planet to meet growing food needs as the world population and demand for calories soars. The World Wildlife Fund has said that we will need to produce twice as many calories on the same amount of land if we hope to protect the environment and preserve natural resources.

Food loss and waste:
Opportunities: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates the world wastes or loses one-third of the food it produces, meaning that some of the need to intensify agricultural production could be reduced by making better use of the food we have.

Challenges: According to FAO, many developing countries have inadequate harvest techniques, poor post-harvest management and logistics, a lack of suitable infrastructure, processing and packaging and a lack of marketing information which all leads to food loss. In wealthier nations, the abundance and affordability of food leads consumers to be less concerned about waste. Consumers are not always accepting of technologies that could better preserve food, and food is often thrown away for cosmetic reasons.

A blended approach:
Opportunities: Today, many farmers are pursuing opportunities to intensify production while lowering their environmental footprint. One recent example of this is an “ECO-farming” approach developed by Ohio State University in response to water quality challenges. In this system, Ohio farmers don’t till the soil and grow a living crop year-round. For instance, grain crops are followed by cover crops, pasture, hay or perennial plants.

This helps build soil, reduces the need for synthetic inputs and minimizes runoff.

Other farmers have employed drip irrigation techniques that minimize water use, some intensively rotate animals through pastures and others practice precision agriculture, which makes use of sophisticated technology and machinery to use the absolute minimum necessary amount of fuel, fertilizer and other products.

Challenges: Research is needed to develop new agricultural practices. Farmers often make long-term investments in land, buildings and equipment, so new techniques must be implemented over time. New ideas must be tested in a real-world scenario and supported by the marketplace.