I received a very kind and imploring request from one of our readers, a Cornell engineering graduate, to address the co-opting of the word "sustainable" by Monsanto and others in the industrial agriculture complex.
Since I take these nudgings seriously, I'll address it here, especially since the phrase is being used throughout the "Green New Deal." A lot of us have an idea about what sustainable means, just like we had an idea what organic means. But words can be co-opted by the opposition, and that is precisely what happened to the word sustainable.
As used in common agriculture parlance, it means spray Roundup on the ground to kill all the vegetation and then plant corn or soybeans. While other herbicides can be used, the most common one today is Roundup, which means Roundup ready seeds must be used--plants that can tolerate the herbicide. The whole idea is that herbicide is better than tillage so if we aren't tilling, all is well.
While no-till with herbicides might hold more soil than old-time tillage, we've learned a lot since herbicides came out. The Rodale Research Center has pioneered smother crops that act as a heavy mulch and designed special planting equipment to go through the matted down smother crop. Some of these smother crops grow insane amounts of biomass--like peas and rye mixed together. It literally lays a blanket of mulch 6 inches deep on the soil surface.
A man named Colin Seis in Australia has a couple thousand farmers following his Pasture Cropping technique, wherein he integrates animal and cropping. We've done this twice at Polyface to great benefit. With no herbicides and no tillage, Pasture Cropping uses animals to graze twice in close succession, temporarily weakening the perennial sod. A regular no-till planting drill can put the seed in between the two grazings. The temporarily weakened perennial allows the annuals a window of germination opportunity to get up and ahead.
As the annual, be it corn, wheat, soybeans or whatever, grows, it shades out the perennial and keeps it retarded until the annual goes through its fast maturity phase. Then you harvest the grain and the living perennial shoots forward.
Either of these options is far superior to herbicide preparation and maintenance, but neither even registers in the mainline sustainability focus groups; neither do they register on the Green New Deal's radar. When Obama put Monsanto's Michael Taylor in charge of food safety, it proved that in this next iteration, Monsanto and cousins will be defining agriculture for the Green New Deal, and it will include herbicide no-till with genetically modified organisms rather than these far superior minority protocols.
The point is that it is no longer acceptable to use the term "sustainable agriculture" in common conversation without digging way deeper for a definition of terms. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
When is the last time you heard the phrase "sustainable agriculture?"