What the “F**r trade” does sustainability mean anyways?

Green is the new everything.
It’s no secret that the recent cultural turn towards sustainability has met its vast success because it’s now cool to “go green”. When a Pabst drinking hipster will yell at someone for not recycling, we are looking at a strange, confused, yet hopeful future.

The words green and sustainable are inescapable part of our daily lives for many now but the terms have become empty because of the amount of times and reasons for their use.

So what does sustainable mean?

For the amount it is used, finding a clear-cut definition of what sustainability means isn’t the easiest task.  Words like organic, local, green have all become closely associated with sustainability and people who use anything with those tags seem to think that the product their associated with is sustainable. You can’t trust a label to authenticate that a product isn’t harmful to our future.  Instead, you have to carefully consider the different aspects of what the product is and how it is made

While searching for the definition of online I ran into a sight Ecoedge.ca.  Douglas Barnes, a permaculture designer from EcoEdge Design, a company that creates sustainable systems for homes, farms, gardens and water systems, seemed to have nailed down the wobbly question of what the word means.

“A system is sustainable if over its lifetime it produces or stores more energy than it consumers in its creation, operation and maintenance.”

At first this definition may seem overly complicated or thick but later in his definition Barnes gives an example of how this can be applied.

“Think of a bank account as an analogy. How long can you continue your lifestyle if you are continually spending more money than you earn? Sooner or later, that lifestyle will come to an end.”

This is just one corn farm I encountered going cross-country. As of 2007 PBS stated that 20 percent of U.S. produced corned is turned to ethanol but is that good? Two articles at the bottom of this post contradict each other in an attempt to answer this question.

Before stumbling upon this definition of the word, I was using a different view for looking at sustainability.  My definition was that if something isn’t causing harm to earth or people then it was sustainable but the statement was vague and left a lot to interpretation.

Barnes interpretation of sustainability gives an in-depth description of what to consider when purchasing products or creating sustainable systems.  But sustainability has absorbed so much and the word has swelled to such giant proportions, with arms reaching so wide, that it cannot be bound by one definition alone.

Merriam-Websters dictionary defines sustainability in the way that I have seen it used frequently.

“A method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Or “Capable of being sustained.”

No matter how you choose to look at sustainability, it becomes a matter of perception whether or not something is sustainable. I asked Barnes to break down sustainability into categories, hoping to somehow make a shortcut to deciding whether or not something is sustainable.  What he offered me was something less than I expected, the unadulterated truth.  There is no idiots guide to sustainability or 8 fold path towards a renewable world. To be a  sustainable consumer it requires individuals to be well-informed and think independently.

“Sustainability is a very holistic concept … artificially breaking it down into categories has inherent problems. Consider grain-fed, shed-raised dairy cattle versus pasture-raised cattle. If you look at the methane emissions from the grain-fed cattle, they are lower than that of the pasture-raised cattle. Considering the cost of this release of a greenhouse gas that has 22 times the heat storage capacity of CO₂, one might be tempted to say that grain-fed dairy cattle are more sustainable than pasture-raised cattle. But this ignores the costs in fuel, soil, and water table damage (and associated health costs that go with polluted groundwater) involved in growing, processing and transporting the grain – not to mention the costs involved due to increased instances of E. coli in grain-fed cattle.

“So, you can see the difficulty in categorizing sustainability. Things are so intertwined that one really needs case-by-case consideration.” Barnes stated.

When I consider my future and think about steps I’m taking towards a sustainable existence, I’m realizing the importance of research.  I’m also starting to get the concept that if I truly want to explain my journey to the end of my destructive ways, I’m going to have to justify why the steps are important, both to myself and to whoever reads this.

Buying a product or starting a practice solely because it’s generally accepted as sustainable isn’t enough. If my mind ever seems to miss a detail, I’ve killed enough brain cells to make this happen more often than I’d like, I fully encourage anybody to fill me in. I don’t know everything and I’m quickly realizing that I almost know nothing.

On that note it’s time for a weekly step.  Lately I’ve been filling my head full of all sorts of anti big ag propaganda, “King Corn”, “Food Inc.”, “Fed Up” etc … in all of this listening and learning I have realized one of the big enemies in our world comes from corn. The sprawling fields of corn that cover the waist of our nation and produce one hell of a boring scene to any road trip, are one of the United States sustainable curses. In more ways than one this corn breaks dooms our world to a poor existence.  Having crops grown in the midwest and shipped to all parts of the country means that by the time consumers can get their hands on this corn, it has taken more energy to ship the carbon based gold than it can produce.

I admittedly have a bias when it comes to corn. After watching crop after crop of the sensitive food source get wiped out by bugs and soil problems, I can only imagine what goes into making thousands of acres of perfect, weed free corn.

This isn’t the only breach in the definition of sustainability that corn has made.  Many of the methods used to produce a majority of American corn spit yellow phlegm in the noble face of sustainability.  The soil used to grow these crops have often become depleted of nutrients required to grow natural corn leaving us with a chemical hybrid, ever heard of crop rotation?  It would seem that a lot of farmers have not.  Instead of letting the ground restore itself, chemical fertilizers powerful enough to level buildings are added to the crops and as a result our environment takes the hit. A result of soil not getting organic substances, such as compost, is that our land is slowly being hit by desertification, leaving a future dust bowl within reach.

While the lawyers and the companies behind the chemical fertilizers will vehemently fight the gloomy light that has been cast on their products, their ploys at reassuring the public are about as convincing as big tobaccos argument that cigarettes don’t cause cancer, just fun.

Now that I’m finished with my long-winded rant this is my step

The beauty of capitalism is that we can make votes that count.  Every item we choose to purchase effects what companies will start offering. If consumers demand sustainable products then businesses will start to sell them. This week I’m voting, no, on one of big corns major products and no longer buy products containing high fructose corn syrup.

I personally like taking elimination steps because by cutting something out, you aren’t required to spend any money and right now I am broke.

Corn syrup definitely makes us fat, but is corn ethanol good for us? Again I find myself tripping over my own feet trying to find an answer.  Ultimately, I’m still stuck within the hazy fog of whats important and realizing that E-85 is shadowed area, perhaps lacking the green tint that it promises.

It takes less energy to create than it produces according to the USDA’s article Net Energy balance of Corn-Ethanol. This fact alone seems to stand up against the Eco Edge definition, but this is only one aspect of the crows nest

The doublethink kicks in when you do a little more research however.

A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford University as well as a few other organizations say that it may be energy efficient but it isn’t sustainable in a paper entitled, Climate change and health costs of air emissions from bio fuels and gasoline.

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2 responses to “What the “F**r trade” does sustainability mean anyways?

  1. You’ve obviously been listening to too many horror stories (“King Corn”, “Food Inc.”, “Fed Up” etc) and not been out on the farm. The reason those stories sell is because they are sensationalized views of what someone thinks happens in agriculture.
    Crop rotation does happen in corn country. It’s very common. If you want to talk about monoculture how about considering grapes, apples, oranges, tree nuts and other crops grown from the same vine or tree year after year. Those are true monocultures.
    If you take something our of the soil, no matter what the crop, you must put something back in. Thus the need for fertilizer, not “chemical” fertilizer, just plain fertilizer. These naturally occurring elements may be refined and condensed, but they are natural. Since a crop takes out these elements, and they are not added back in by you bringing back your excrement when you eat the crop, they must come from somewhere.
    Ethanol is not the only thing created when corn is processed in a refinery. There are a range of animal and human food products that are produced at the same time. These products are all too often forgotten by those who consider corn based ethanol a waste of energy.
    You need to do a bit more research before you believe what they tell you in “King Corn”, “Food Inc.”, “Fed Up” and other tales that are only thinly based on the truth.

    • I will quickly admit that any of those movies definitely omit a lot of truths and sensationalize, they are out to turn profit. But with a little research and personal experience, I’ve realized that it’s not all hot air. I also know that not all farms practice the same type of agriculture and that the way you farm is probably different then your neighbors and probably different from the farm I’m working on.
      When the move was made from using unconcentrated organic matter as a fertilizer to only Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, minimizing the importance of trace minerals in the soil, I believe that we lost something major in our food supply. Official sources on the effects of this change are hard to trust for me. Ag lobbyist and the government have strong stakes in our cash crops, meaning information is tamed for public consumption.
      Everything in our world was at some point natural. The uranium used in atomic bombs was once naturally occurring but once it was refined and condensed it took the form of a whole different creature.
      I do realize that corn ethanol is not the only product of processed corn. In fact corn has become such a huge part of our daily lives that I think most people don’t realize its in nearly everything. If we were to drop corn completely right now, our food supply would be in dangerous shape. That to me is disturbing though, not uplifting.
      I, however, don’t believe that ethanol is a waste of energy. I’m fairly confident, as is the USDA that it actually isn’t a negative net energy producer.

      According to a study by the USDA titled “THE 2001 NET ENERGY BALANCE OF CORN-ETHANOL”
      “The study results suggest that corn ethanol is energy efficient, as indicated by an energy output/input ratio of 1.67.”
      However, I know that it isn’t the most effective producer of alternative fuel as well. Whether or not corn ethanol is good or bad, I can’t say. I don’t have all the facts. I do know that we as a culture need to look at anything new though with an analytical eye.
      I honestly do appreciate your response. It’s good to hear from people actually involved in the corn production. Can I ask what you use as a fertilizer? And what crops you rotate? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m not always right but I need to know what is going on to figure out what I’ve gotten wrong.

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