At this point in the development of human society the sustainability
of agriculture is necessary for the survival of the vast majority of
people. Research which aims to understand sustainability in agriculture
is therefore vital to the goal of maintaining sustainability. It is
necessary that to the extent possible this research proceed free of
idealogical presuppositions, which determine a priori what will be
researched and indeed what will be discovered. The danger of imposing
such ideas on research into biological systems is amply demonstrated
by the example Lysenko. It is therefore necessary to be able to
distinguish what is an inherent and important facet of the system from
what is not. Given limited resources, if ideaology drives research people
Sustainability in agriculture means that within a certain set of boundary
conditions (i.e. no glacial advance over the area of interest, etc.) that the
system can continue to produce food indefinitely. It follows from this
that the system cannot as it proceeds degrade the vital resource base on
which it depends, otherwise it is falling not flying.
It is possible and in fact necessary to be able to determine what
sustainability depends on, and within the issue of sustainability where
the causal links are. The foundation of sutainability in agricultural is the set
of biological/physical possible processes involved in the production of food.
If a given process is impossible or undermines the resource base on which
it depends, then it cannot be part of sustainable agricultural system.
Sustainability is further bounded by a subset of the biologically/physically
possible, which might be referred to as the socially/culturally possible.
Not everything which is biologically/phyiscally possible is socially/culturally
possible, for example, an agriculture based on the production of insects for
human consumption, is physically possible but not currently socially possible
in the United States. It is important to recognize that these two components
the physical/biolgical and the social/cultural are not equal in terms of
determining sustainability. There is a flow of restriction going from one
to the other. Biological possibility is necessary for social possibility but
not the other way around, as long as you distinguish "what can happen" from
"what will happen". In terms of sustainability of the agricultural system
determining biological/physical possibility is necessary but not sufficient,
sustainability can only be achieved by satisfying the additional requirement
that the process by socially/culturally possible as well. There are of course
complex interactions between the two components and a study of
sustainbility which ignores these interactions will be fatally flawed.
Such a study of interactions must be able to distinguish between connection
and mere proximity as well as causality and mere correlation, and of course
things which exist but which nevertheless have neglible impact on the
system behavior of interest, which is the indefinite production of food.
It is in this last arena that the problems have occurred in sustainble
agriculture research. These have taken the shape of assertions which
use the desirability of sustainability to advance an ethical agenda which
may or may not be desirable but which does not follow from sustainaibilty
nor is it a prerequisite for sustainability. The argument then becomes, either
you accept my ethical position or your not in favor of sustainaility (i.e. you
are in favor of starvation). This is rehtorical equivalent of putting a roll
of quarters in your boxing glove.
For example, I have seen it asserted a priori that bioregionalism is a
necessary prerequisite for sustainability. If it is a prerequisite then it
better be a component of a research program on sustainability. In fact
examples can be provided which demonstrate that it is not a prerequisite.
A sustainable system might have bioregional features or it might not. There
are many aspects of bioregionalism which are consistent with some peoples
ethics. These aspects include local control, decentralized democracy, a
sense of "place", understanding of the local flora and fauna. All these
may be ethcially desirable, but they are distinct from the issue of
sustainability. Bioregionalism might come into the study of sustainability
where it becomes an issue of energy use. When one is discussing whether
reduction in the use of transportation energy enhances sustainability. Or
whether indepence from remote food sources enhances sustainability.
This is an important distinction, because if one accepts a priori that
bioregionalism is a part of sustainability then when catagorically
excludes the study of those instances in which sustainabilty without
bioregionalism was attained, and what can be learned from such
In the arena of ethical argument these distinctions are also important.
Following from the bioregional example. Let us say that I am making
the argument that bioregionalism could also lead to xenophobia and
the repression of local minorities by local elites (essentially the
whole "States Rights/Segregation" issue in the US). My opponent
in debate then cites sustainability as a trump card for the necessity
of bioregionalism and since sustainbility has been conflated with
his ethical agenda, I have no choice but to accept his point of view.
This has the simultaneous effect of truncating sustainable agricultural
research and forcing the acceptance of an ethical position on false grounds.
Thus the question "is this agricultural system sustainable?" should be
examined separately from the question "what are the ethical implications
of agricultural research, and the concomittant ethical responsibilities of
scientists engaged in such research?"