response to On Defining Sustainable Agriculture - Ikerd

Attached is a response from one of my colleagues, with whom I and 
others have collaborated on the issue of defining sustainable 

Remarks Concerning:
      "On Defining Sustainable Agriculture" by John Ikerd

1.  We are not convinced that most disagreements concerning the
definition of sustainable agriculture stem from differing opinions
concerning the "means" by which a sustainable agriculture can or
should be achieved rather than the "goal" toward which those means
are directed.  To pursue this question further it would be useful
to have a sample of definitions, about which people have disagreed,
for discussion.  We suggest that if you are developing a document
for use in discussion of "the definitional issue" that you include
some definitions as part of the document.

     It seems to us that disagreements concerning the way to define
sustainable agriculture are indeed disagreements about goals or
objectives.  Indeed, as you note in your third paragraph, "we must
agree on what is to be sustained, for whom, and for how long".  At
the present time we have not achieved such agreement.  Further, it
is not informative to say, as you do on your second page, that what
everyone is aiming at sustaining is "agriculture".  There are
various views concerning the nature of agriculture, that is,
concerning the forms that agricultural activities ought to take. 
It is difficult to state these matters clearly and concisely. 
However, we shall try the following.

     The primary goal of some people is to reform agriculture as an
essential part of the re-creation of conditions within which people
engaged in agriculture can live in accordance with a complex ideal. 
The emphasis here is on creating conditions which sustain good
people doing good work.  We suspect that the primary goal,
according to a second view, is to reform agriculture so that
agriculture ecosystems emulate wild ecosystems.  While achieving
this goal is not necessarily incompatible with achieving the first
goal, it is not necessarily compatible either.  Finally, we
suspect, there is a third view, and this is very likely the
dominant view, in which the primary goal is to find a way to
preserve agriculture as agribusiness.  Advocates of this view
recognize that some practices of contemporary conventional agriculture 
will have to be changed, indeed are being changed through adoption of
such concepts as low-till nor no-till farming and integrated pest
management.  From this perspective, the goal is to do agribusiness
in ways that don't undermine our capacity to continue to do
agribusiness, rather than to do farming in a way which mimics wild
ecosystems or to do farming in a way that enables farmers to live
virtuously as independent beings.

2.  We agree with much of what you say concerning economic viability. 
People engaged in any aspect of agriculture, whether it be farming,
supplying materials to farmers, manufacturing goods from farm
products, or distributing farm products or such manufactured goods,
need to be able to earn enough income from these activities to live
well.  Perhaps that is what economic viability means.  However, we
believe there is strong disagreement as to what is necessary in
order to earn enough income.  Some people think that if your farm
business is not growing, it is dying.  Such people are not likely
to agree that a farm business which does not strive to maximize
profits can be economically viable.    The tone of your remarks
suggests you would disagree with such a perspective.  Assuming that
we have interpreted your opinion on this matter correctly, we hope
that you are correct.  We doubt that it is possible to farm in a
way which maximizes income of farmers from year to year but which
also tends to preserve the resource base which is necessary for
farming. If you are not correct then developing a mode of
agriculture which both preserves the resources necessary for
farming and is economically viable would appear to be impossible. 
      We suggest that in training professionals who are to work
with farmers, it is important to bring fundamental controversies
out into full view.  That is the best way to prepare such indi-
viduals to face the questions that they will inevitably have to
face.  Further, only through rigorous scrutiny of such controver-
sies can we justify whatever confidence we may achieve as to the
correct way to proceed in regard to agriculture in the future.  We
need to investigate carefully whether we can have agriculture which
is both economically viable and ecologically sound.  

3.  We like much of what you said concerning social responsibility, 
especially your claim that to assume that agriculture can be 
economcially viable and ecologically sound in the absence of justice 
is to beg significant ethical questions.

     We note that your use of the term social justice may reflect
some question-begging assumptions also.  There are profound
disagreements concerning what justice requires as you can see from
reading the works of John Rawls, Robert Nozick, as well as
utilitarian thinkers.  Perhaps, in training agriculture profes-
sionals, you should consider introducing them to some such philo-
sophical literature.

     At the very least, we think, it is necessary to develop some
discussion concerning statements of justice.  It is not satisfac-
tory simply to refer to ideals though use of terms such as "social
responsibility" or "social justice".  Use of such terms without
considerable explanation of specific principles and discussion of
controversial matters gives students the false impression that we
know what justice requires and that questions of what practices are
just are simple matters.  Students need to be made aware of
conflicting perspectives on these matters and encouraged to think
carefully to provide a strong ground for the opinions they judge to
be correct.

4.  We don't understand what you mean by saying that "the foregoing
thesis does not define sustainable agriculture, instead it defines
an approach to working for agricultural sustainability" (or the
comparable remarks you made near the beginning of your paper). 
Perhaps the distinction between what you think you are doing and
what you think you are not doing needs to be clarified.

5.  Your last six paragraphs call attention to many ethical and
other assumptions you have made in the course of your paper.  We
commend you on being open about your assumptions. We suspect you
are trying to give some indication of the reasons which you believe
justifies your taking the positions you do concerning agricultural
sustainability.  You hinted at such reasons in your third
paragraph.  There you suggested that agriculture should be
sustainable for the benefit of humanity.  We are uncomfortable with
this way of speaking as humanity is an abstraction.  We prefer to
speak of working for the benefit of living and future human beings
as well as of any other creatures that may be entitled to
consideration.  Achieving sustainable agriculture will almost
certainly harm some human beings in various ways.  Speaking of
benefiting humanity obscures the fact that in trying to improve our
agriculture in order to fulfill our obligations some human beings
may have to sacrifice much that they cherish.

     However, given that you have neither attempted to support
these assumptions by reasoned argument nor tried to refute those
who have tried to provide rational support for assumptions with
which you disagree, we suggest that your position begs important
and controversial questions concerning agricultural sustainability. 
Given that you recognize that sustainable agriculture must be
socially responsible, your dismissal, in the absence of rational
discussion, of ethical perspectives with which you disagree, is
highly questionable. If you aim at training agriculture
professionals to meet their responsibilities, should you not train
them to address controversial ethical assumptions in a socially
responsible manner?  Rather than simply dismissing assumptions with
which you disagree, it might be useful to call attention to such
assumptions and to provide your students with a bibliography of
relevant reading material and encouragement to pursue inquiries
concerning controversial matters.

                                Hugh Lehman
                                Dept. of Philosophy

Dr. E. Ann Clark
Associate Professor
Crop Science
University of Guelph
Guelph, ON  N1G 2W1
Phone:  519-824-4120 Ext. 2508
FAX:  519 763-8933