‘Sustainability’ has become one of the buzzwords of the past decade. When asked to define the concept, a prominent Argentinian farmer said, “Sustainability equals profitability.”
Put another way, farmers must remain profitable to enable them to look after the people and the environment.
It makes economic sense to limit the use of chemicals. These inputs are expensive and farmers who are less dependent on them will, in general, be more profitable.
However, profitability also depends on maintaining production efficiency. Thus you cannot stop using chemicals completely; the idea is to limit their use to only that which is essential.
At the same time, farming in ‘harmony with nature’ does not mean that farmers should go to extremes. For example, minimum-till is probably a more sustainable option than no-till, where the build-up of nematodes and mycotoxins can become a problem.
Without modern technology, including genetic modification, we would be unable to feed the world’s population. Modern intensive feed production, for example, is actually more environmentally friendly if the impact is assessed with food production as the base.
Farmers generally do care for the environment, but they will not adopt practices that do not make economic sense.
Apart from the obvious ethical considerations, it makes economic sense to treat workers well.
Money spent on training, for example, is usually well spent. In addition, educating employees about important life-skills such as the proper management of a budget will lower the risk of them getting into ruinous debt with unscrupulous hire-purchase retailers.
At the same time, the plethora of labour rules and regulations that farmers have to take into account, and especially the limits on payment in kind, have resulted in a more formal relationship with their workers.
However, many farmers still provide emergency transport, act as a bank and support workers in other ways. Farmers often do not get enough credit for all they do. In addition, many have been supporting their local communities for decades.
They do not get enough credit for this either.
Consumers are also important to sustainability; if they are unwilling to buy a farmer’s products, the products will have no value. However, in the modern free-market system, the gap between primary producer and consumer is growing wider as the consumer continues to demand more value-added products.
This is largely due to a few retail chains using buzzwords such as ‘hormone-free’, ‘antibiotic-free’ and other labels to try to convince consumers that their products are superior to other products.
These campaigns have had mixed success. In a global survey of consumers conducted a few years ago, consumers rated ‘hormone-free’ as the least significant factor when deciding on which brand of milk to buy. ‘Freshness’ and ‘taste’ ranked much higher.
Many environment- and people-friendly actions make good economic sense. It’s easy to convince farmers to take these actions.
In contrast, uncertainty caused by continued threats from government about farmers’ property rights seriously damages farmers’ future outlook. Put simply, protection of property rights is crucial for long-term sustainability.
South Africa’s commercial farmers have, over many years, shown that they are capable of producing enough food for the local population at affordable prices. To continue doing this, they need the support of
To continue doing this, they need the support of government. They also need the support of civil society when politicians threaten their property rights.
They also need the support of civil society when politicians threaten their property rights.