What does ‘sustainable development’ mean?
The concept of “sustainable development” within the United Nations context first appeared in the Brundtland Commission Report in 1987.

KANSAS CITY — The United Nations last year approved 17 new “sustainable development” goals. Among them are: sustainable agriculture; sustainable water and sanitation management; sustainable energy; sustainable economic growth; sustainable industrialization; sustainable cities; sustainable consumption and production patterns; sustainable oceans; sustainable forest and terrestrial management systems; and sustainable “peaceful and inclusive societies.” It seems important, therefore, for there to be a clear and widely accepted definition of “sustainable.” There is not.

The concept of “sustainable development” within the United Nations context first appeared in the Brundtland Commission Report in 1987. That report defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It was a notion of sustainable development meant to have economic, social and environmental dimensions.

In the intervening 30 years, several things seem to have happened to the concept. First, it has seemed to shift from a descriptive statement to a normative one. As such, it has become value-laden and a criterion that investors, lenders and consumers are urged to apply to their decision-making. It is a standard by which to measure good intentions and good actions.

Second, the environmental dimension has seemed to overwhelm the social and economic dimensions. And, when the social dimension surfaces, it often is used to assert a preference for traditional practices over science-based or technological advancements. At its extreme, sustainable development is used to support a vision of a simpler relationship between humans and nature in which people are asked to live in harmony with nature rather than to manage nature to advance human well-being.

Finally, in the absence of clear measurement standards, compliance often becomes a sort of beauty contest. Companies strive to comply with third-party questionnaires and targets, and they publish glossy sustainability reports touting their achievements. This may devolve into a “greening” of the enterprise rather than a focused effort to build the kind of sustainable progress that the Brundtland Commission Report envisioned.

Impact on agriculture

For agriculture, that ambiguity around the meaning of sustainable development has produced two competing but very different visions. One might be called “artisanal,” built on notions of what is natural, traditional, organic, chemical-free, etc. An artisanal system of food production is local, labor-intensive, diverse, small and, generally, higher cost.

That is a vision of sustainable development that is gaining increasing traction with the roughly 1 billion well-off consumers, most of whom typically spend about 10% of their incomes on food. They can afford to pay the added costs of building such psychic values into their food supplies. They see these values as fostering environmentally friendly production and marketing processes. Things like cage-free; free-range; pesticide-, hormone- or G.M.O.-free; natural; local, family-farmed, etc., define sustainable agriculture for them. Such a view veers toward an ideal of self-sufficiency that seems to foster a return to a simpler time and a more agrarian society.

That vision competes with a more technologically driven one, which might be characterized as “conventional” agriculture. Conventional agriculture pursues sustainable development through mechanization; substitution of chemicals for land and labor; breeding advances, including genetic engineering; specialization; precision farming; modern processing, packaging and handling techniques; and increasing reliance on trade in global markets. In animal agriculture, it pursues humane treatment through a mix of science and good management rather than such values-driven ideals as free range. In a word, it pursues sustainability through efficiency and improving resource management practices.

Its claim to sustainable status rests primarily on the needs and aspirations of the 6 billion people still seeking sustained economic growth, although even well-off consumers benefit from its cost-reducing effects. The food challenge for the 6 billion awaiting prosperity may be illustrated by the contrast between their resource conditions and those of the industrial world.

Developed vs. developing world

The wealthy developed world has about one-fourth of the world’s arable land and abundant water resources but only one-seventh of the world’s population and virtually none of its anticipated population growth. It has the money and the balance between natural resources and population to afford and enjoy a more values-driven food system.

By contrast, South and East Asia have only one-third of the world’s arable land, stressed water resources and over half of the world’s current population and will experience the lion’s share of the world’s future population growth. It is virtually impossible to meet the rising food needs of these people with an artisanal approach to farming. They will need all of the tools of conventional agriculture — science, management and trade — to meet their food needs on a sustainable basis.

The challenge for achieving sustainable agricultural development, therefore, may be to hold these differing visions of sustainability in mind simultaneously. For those who can afford it, a more artisanal agriculture can nurture their sustainability aspirations. For those yet to experience plenty, a more science- and trade-based approach to agriculture is likely the only sustainable one.