Guest Rant: Saxon Holt on Sustainability


I sat in the crowd nursing my concerns about the very concept of measuring sustainable agriculture when Jonathan Kaplan of the National Resource Defense Council said the work must go forward because there is a lot of money waiting to invest in this. In my mind, I was already questioning how economics, one of the three E’s of farming sustainability (Ecology, Economy, Equity) fits into the the broader concept of our planet’s sustainability, when the light bulb went off. It’s about money.

This term “Sustainable Agriculture” needs to be defined so that it carries an official stamp of marketing approval for corporate America. The Leonardo/ANSI project includes 56 stakeholders including Wal-Mart and Unilever. Are these guys gonna invest money in sustainable agriculture unless it gets them a marketing edge ? Sadly, we know that answer.

I know such recognizable certifications like LEED do prod businesses to do the right thing, but think sustainability is much too big an issue to be reduced to a label in a supermarket. Sustainability must be done, economics or not.

Even the idea of defining sustainable agriculture in scientific reductionist terms is wrongheaded in my philosophic mind. The same scientific sensibility that reduced a plant’s need to NPK now seeks to define sustainability in such a way that regulators can measure it.

But perhaps the biggest reason we should not waste the policy makers time and burden the farmer with compliance is because we cannot really know what sustainable agriculture is. We, as humans, have not been farming long enough to really know how our farming practices truly affect the planet. To look at what farming has done is to be sickened. Even the best organic farmers can not be sure what sustainability is, other than a moving target.

If the market needs a term to validate best practices and spur better farming, let’s build on the work of defining Organic, a description that does not carry as much meaning as many farmers would like. Perhaps ‘Sustained Organic’ or some other thoughtful word that does not presume we can define sustainability would allow eco-farmers, the actual practitioner of sustainability’s best practices, have a marketing edge without claiming “the answer” for our future.

– Saxon Holt


  1. Anyone who has had to work with the USDA Organic standard and seen what a step down it has been from the previous system would just tear their hair in furry at the idea of a “sustainability” standard. We don’t even have a model of sustainability. How can we hope to develop measurable standard. It is just pure marketing horse shit!

  2. It’s tricky. I mean, of course it’s about money–farmers expect to get paid for their work, and those farmers who are really doing the right thing in terms of sustainability would like to be able to let their customers know that. Many of us want to vote with our dollars and reward farms for doing the right thing, but we need a way to know which farms those are. (And yes, going to the farmer’s market and talking to the farmer directly is a great way to do that–although not always possible.)

    I just finished doing a round of interviews with farmers in the UK involved in sustainable flower production (for the forthcoming UK edition of Flower Confidential, which they’re calling Gilding the Lily.) I was surprised that everyone I interviewed really considered ‘organic’ to be a useless term. ‘Organic is just a list of what you can & can’t spray on your crops,’ they would say. ‘We’re talking about how you build the health of the soil, conserve water and fuel, how you treat your workers and the environment and the community.’

    And many leaders in the sustainability movement over there said that they’d rather see a farmer do one effective, targeted spray of a non-organic pesticide, instead of repeated weekly sprayings of an organic one–that in many cases the former is actually better all around for the environment than the latter.

    So I don’t know where it’s all going, but it is indeed an interesting discussion…

  3. Not surprising that many of the folks Amy interviewed in England considered the term ‘organic’ to be useless; and this is the reason behind trying to define ‘sustainable agriculture’ – so that organic means something. I do not mean to imply, in my post, that learned groups are wasting their time trying to figure out better ways to differentiate organic products in the market, it just seems absurd to use the term “sustainable agriculture” to do it.

    As Amy implies, we need to find a better label so we can vote with our dollars. This too is a trick as we get more suspicious of labels. According to the representative from Scientific Certification Services at the Eco-Farm, their surveys show: “consumers are increasingly contemptuous of myriad environmental claims”. This is no surprise but made me wonder then, why are they spending so much time trying to come up with a new label ?
    Saxon Holt

  4. A new label gives them all kinds of spin potential. Something ‘green’ but as yet undefined is perfect. Organic ran into all kinds of problems because there were a bunch of crusty old hippy farmers, foodies, and eco-freeks who already had a working definition. When big business co-opted the label, watering it down in the process so it didn’t really change business as usual, the granola crowd caused trouble. Sustainable is a perfect marketing label. No one knows what it means, but it sounds good. It also goes along with all the other sustainable products out there – energy, business, forest harvesting, etc. What it will never be is useful or meaningful to consumers, growers, or environmentally conscious people.

  5. We do not need any more labels! I was at Amy’s talk at at the IGC on organics and was most pleased. (yes! the TROLL was plaesed by a Garden Rant founder!!)

    What is needed is to rely on NOFA, Oregon Tilth, OMRI etc for unbaised reviews on what organic really is.

    Sustainability is yet more spin, like changing the term global warming to cimate change.

    Climate change replaced global warming beacuse the ultimate climate in the north east US may end up like Alaska according to may global warming proponents. Well this shoots a hole in the warming theory because my climate right now in Albany, NY is the coldest in thirty years for the second time in three years and Alaska is a lot colder than Albany. According to this theory warming is not “global” so lets call it climate change instead.

    All the so called scientific data on global warming and yet a well respected theory exists which has an almost new ice age coming to the north east US compared to our current zone 5 (where I live) clime. THIS IS NOT WARMING AND CERTAINLY NOT GLOBAL.

    So we now have facts/ theories (one from Jeff Gilman I think) suggesting large scale organic agriculture is not possible without further depleting rain forests to make room for more cows to graze to get organic cow manure from.

    So let’s go from calling it organic to sustainable…. This may work since sustainability encompasses some modern techniques while not organic contribute to a smaller over all eco footprint.

    I think it is about time we in the garden and journalism industry start definig localism properly.

    Being a locavore does not mean buying produce etc. just from local farmers. How about grwing it in your own back yard or community garden? How much more local can you get?

    My mantra is a butcher, a baker and acandlestick maker in every town.

    The (loacl yokel) TROLL

  6. Local cant be just about growing local food. All the waste has to be put back into the local resource pool to grow more food. All the energy and water has to come from the local pool too. If that happens then the local populations of what ever creature can not exceed the local resources. It is by taking resouces from elsewhere for only human consumption that we have created exponential human population growth. In nature growth is limited by the locally available resources. If you look at a natural ecosystem and found uncontrolled growth of one species in the system you would instantly know that something was seriously wrong with the system. We consider ourselves exempt from natural law and so don’t recognize the signs that we would instantly see in any other population. Changing to a local system for all our basic needs is the only chance we have of surviving. People will say it can’t be done, but we haven’t even tried applying our intellect to the problem in that way.

  7. I just picked the food angle on “local” since it was the easiest topic to write about. I also added the candlestick maker to the local mix as well.

    If one can get most of his/her needs within 50 miles of home imagine all the time and money we would save with less traffic on interstates, shorter commutes and the best thing? Wal-Marts shutting down everywhere making zillions of square feet of space available for more local manufacturing!

    The (can never find the right size box at the box stores anyway) TROLL

  8. alan has said “All the energy and water has to come from the local pool too” and argues that we must think locally to sustain our system, that borrowing resources from elsewhere leads to unsustainable population. This is true in nature and humans have acted too much as if we are exempt from those laws.

    However, the reality of where we are now, with population and crowded cities, is we must borrow energy and water resources from beyond our farm lands to support agriculture. We need to figure out better crop choices, better recycling of farm materials, better soil conservation practices, etc. but we will still need to borrow resources.

    I live in California, the biggest agricultural state with no summer water. Even here in moderate San Francisco Bay area, ground zero for some of the best sustainable practices and an exemplary localvore economy, the very best farmers can not grow much without borrowed water. Whether borrowing with wells from the water table or dammed up river water, farmers need more water than they have on site.

    The solution is to define local in broader terms and recognize that humans have the capacity, yea the responsibility, to think of the broader human community. We do not live separate from nature, nor can nature live separate from us. We have our needs and and nature will be affected.

    The hope is that we can use our intelligence to create sustainable systems. I think it an acceptable trade-off that we dam up certain resources to benefit the greater community. I don’t think this has been done wisely and those that use the resource should pay more for it so that efficiencies are encourage, but if we think of how we can sustain local agriculture we must think in broad terms.

    We must think wisely for the benefit of the world ecosystem and the humans that are already inhabiting it. We don’t yet know what sustainable means in agriculture, but we sure must try for it.

  9. I’ll not pretend that it is one easy step from here to there, but if we don’t move in that direction we are doomed. Even in water strapped California there are things that could be done. I grew up in the desert, so I know what the long dry can be like. Yet even in the desert there are times of rain and no water collection. (I remember parts of Phoenix being impassably because of rain and two weeks late we were rationing water, If every home had a rain catchment system, that would have been a step in the right direction on both problems.) If more people across the country grew a bit more of what they needed locally we wouldn’t be so dependent on California agriculture and their borrowed water. We haven’t really started exploring ways to develop small, local, sustainable, closed loop systems. We just keep wringing our hands and throwing money at the giant. Maybe we just need to chose to walk away and start trying to live differently.

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