Is sustainability really sustainable?

Sustainable agriculture encompasses much more than environmental protection. It depends on a profitable agricultural sector operating in a stable and well-regulated environment where everyone does their job.

A recent tongue-in cheek report in the USA discussed the use of the word “sustainable” in scientific publications. If the current trend continues, it says, by 2030 whole sentences will consist of the word “sustainable” being repeated over and over!

From time to time, the world latches onto a specific theme. In 1999 it was the “millennium bug”. Huge amounts of money were spent to change computer programmes to prevent everything from grinding to a halt at 00h00 on 31 December 1999. But midnight came and went and nothing happened.

Current buzzwords are “carbon footprint”, “climate change” and “sustainability”. When people talk about sustainablility, they see it as a very narrow concept. For most, it is about protecting the environment. But sustainable agriculture implies the ability to continue to produce food and fibre at affordable prices without a detrimental impact on the environment and population.

The first requirement for sustainable production is that it must be profitable. Farmers are price-takers and it’s often easy for farm suppliers and buyers of farmers’ produce to balance their books by charging farmers more or paying them less for their products. They can do this because of the unequal balance of power between the many farmers and the few suppliers and buyers.

It therefore appears that the first step towards sustainable agriculture is to enable farmers to both pay and receive fair prices for their products. But this doesn’t happen. The purpose of the Competition Act is to ensure healthy competition.While the act has been used successfully to prevent some cases of price collusion, it also prevents small enterprises from collective action. However, the co-op movement could possibly provide some solutions to this problem.

Once agricultural profitability is ensured, farmers will have the resources to attend to environmental issues. As it makes economic sense to limit the use of expensive inputs, farmers will be keen to use alternative energy sources to save money. Government will have to subsidise the use of alternative energy and also provide the structure for farmers to sell surplus energy to the national grid.

In the European Union, a dairy herd with 180 cows in milk can maintain a viable biogas unit. But in South Africa, it’s alleged that you need about 1 000 cows to be able to do this – nobody knows why. Carbon credits are frequently mentioned as a way of funding alternative energy projects. However, it remains uncertain whether a farmer will be able to sell carbon credits and if so, to whom?

The sustainability of South African agriculture is threatened by various other factors. Livestock theft and predators have decreased the size of the sheep industry to the extent where South Africa no longer produces enough mutton and lamb. The recent problems with Rift Valley fever and foot-and-mouth disease, as well as government’s lack of a sense of urgency in addressing these crises, doesn’t leave much room for optimism about the sustainability of our country’s agriculture. Ultimately, the major threat to sustainability is institutional rather than economic, and will need serious attention in the future.

• Dr Koos Coetzee is an agricultural economist at the MPO. All opinions expressed are his own and don’t reflect MPO policy. Contact Dr Coetzee at [email protected] Please state “Global farming” in the subject line of your email.