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Sustainable agriculture’s development may be hindered because people think about the topic too abstractly.

Generalities are great for identifying broad goals, but concrete strategies are needed to take action and measure success, said Chris Gambino, senior sustainable livestock analyst at The Breakthrough Institute, a D.C. environmental research group.

Along with regenerative and natural, sustainable is one of the most contested buzzwords in agriculture.

In its dictionary definition, it describes the ability to maintain something in its present state or keep it from depletion.

In an agricultural context, sustainability is often broken into ecological, social and economic elements.

In other words, for agricultural production to continue with certain desirable qualities, the environment must be in good shape, the community must be doing well, and farms must be making money so they can stay in business. All three parts are needed.

Still, these are not three simple things. They are sweeping categories, encompassing everything from soil health to pesticide use, farm worker benefits to government programs.

People disagree on which policies and farming practices contribute to environmental, social and economic well-being, and Gambino said people too often try to find sustainable solutions before adequately identifying the problems they are trying to solve.

To him, that’s not the way to make progress.

“If it’s just this idea that it’s healthier without defining what healthier means, then who’s to say we reached a goal?” he said Jan. 17 during Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s virtual conference.

Gambino’s claim about the vagueness of the sustainability debate is borne out by survey data. He conducted the research with more than 200 students at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where until recently he was a professor.

Students mostly offered abstract definitions of sustainability — having a healthy system, keeping farms going, not putting anything harmful into the water or soil.

“None of these are bad ideas, but when these perceptions greatly outweigh the actionable strategies needed to sustainably farm, then we have an issue,” Gambino said.

Students also focused on the environmental and social facets of sustainability, rarely the economic piece.

When respondents described social dimensions, they emphasized the needs of consumers and farmers, which Gambino said are important. But students rarely mentioned the welfare of farm laborers or livestock — potential blind spots when developing a holistic concept of sustainability.

Students who identified as Democrats and Republicans explained sustainability in broadly similar ways, though Republicans mentioned profitability a bit more than Democrats — perhaps a reminder, Gambino said, that many of his participants were agribusiness majors.

Republicans also tended to focus on current farmers and consumers, while Democrats were concerned about the well-being of people who will fill those roles in the future.

Sustainability should address the concerns of today while ensuring that needs can still be met tomorrow, Gambino said.

While moving from the abstract to the concrete could help develop a consensus on what sustainable ag is, Gambino didn’t claim to have crafted the perfect definition himself.

Many voices, including both scientists and farmers, need to be included in that process, he said.

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