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Sustainability - goal or process?

Goal or process?

By Harry MacCormack

When Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas began using the term “sustainability” in the late 1970’s, he, and many others, were reacting to an agriculture based on extraction. A food production system that mines, uses toxic synthetic chemicals, and pollutes every element of its resource base (soil, water, and air ) is in entropy. That system will eventually be incapable of producing food, fiber, or even fuel.

Wes envisioned re-grassing the great prairies of the U.S.A. He saw that for the long haul, most of agriculture needed to move to perennial production based in biologically aligned farming and ranching practices. He, Bill Mollison, and a host of others spawned versions of permaculture. Bill’s work is more orchard and garden oriented. Wes’s work was with grains and seeds. Forty years later, what was being taught by both great men is being practiced by a few worldwide.

We have not understood the revolutionary nature of true sustainability. It is not a concept or set of practices which can easily inform our current agricultural institutions. It runs counter to the industrial model of implied durability, it is counter to dominant culture processes of use for immediate profit.  Setting up agricultural systems that remain biologically resilient for hundreds or thousands of years, is not what modern society is about.  Sustainability is definitely well marketed. Are these marketers really trying to set up processes which, if achieved, would undercut their industries?

As I said in The Transition Document: Toward An Environmentally Sound Agriculture in 1989 and 1993, sustainability has been changed by the dominant culture to mean “keeping what we have.” Actually, the dictionary definition of “sustain” is “to keep from sinking or falling, especially with bearing up from below; uphold; support.”

For our institutions, the sustainability movement is a new way to say that all our conventional agriculture practices must go on... because they have gotten us to this glorious state of full shelves in super markets worldwide. It is a way of confirming that our current industrial food system will go on in perpetuity.

All this is supported by a Federal definition of sustainability, put into law in 1990, around the same time that we first established a definition for organic. Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1683, defines sustainable agriculture as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Notice the open-endedness of this definition, and the phrasing,“where appropriate.” This definition is neither organic, nor is it biological (as in aligning agricultural practices with naturally occurring biological processes).  When we see “sustainable” food labels whose rules allow for low-input chemical controls, we are looking at the newest version of conventional, chemically-based agriculture dressed up to look like it’s rooted in biological practices. These are huge differences!

But there is another issue with sustainability which has not been adequately addressed by the organic movement. Are we generating biological resilience as we grow ever larger chunks of market? How can we tell? We are not requiring any soil food-web testing which would give us a clue as to the directions our soils are headed. We are keeping synthetics out of the soil, water and air, but in the name of economic viability, are we promoting less trucking, less packaging? Has the organic community really made an effort to move away from the dominant industrial paradigm?

Real sustainability means developing biologically integrated community at very local levels. This translates to developing integrated human communities based on local food production practiced to organic standards. Local standards need to be more than organic, for food systems that could sustain communities.

For more on the how-to of such community food development go to  We will attempt to keep all who are interested informed as we build such a three county food system.

Harry MacCormack, along with Cheri Clark, runs Sunbow Farm, and the Institute of Biowisdom. Visit them in person or online at

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