May 7, 2008

Sustainable Agriculture?

The Southern Rural Sociological Association has released a special issue of their journal, Southern Rural Sociology, that focuses on the topic of Sustainable Agriculture and Quality of Life and from a quick perusal there appear to be some very interesting papers.  Many of you are undoubtedly frequent readers, subscribers even, of Southern Rural Sociology but I confess I had never heard of it before this particular issue.  However, I am quite familiar with an affiliated organization of theirs, S-SARE (hang on, its a mouthful - Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education), the Southern branch of, you guessed it, SARE.  Fancy acronyms aside they are a pretty straight forward institution that administers grants funded by the USDA and EPA for research and education regarding sustainable agriculture.  Last year I did a bit of the groundwork (literally) on one such grant researching the use of cover crops in pasture planted for goat forage and attended a couple of SARE events - they are good people doing good work.  However, I was working at an institution that was interested in issues of agricultural production and sustainability not solely for productions sake but for the eventual (and hopeful) transformations that those methods and production could catalyze in areas of the world traditionally plagued by extreme hunger and poverty - and there were occasions when reading SARE documents left me somewhat cold or frustrated because they didn't follow the food out of the field, so to speak.  So, all of that to say (God bless you if you're still following this) that I was encouraged to see this issue of Southern Rural Sociology written in coordination with S-SARE in an attempt to bring more social science research into the sustainable agriculture family. I was particularly encouraged by this abstract from the first paper:
This paper introduces the special issue of Southern Rural Sociology and lays the groundwork for the rest of the papers. The genesis of this special issue flows from the efforts of the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (S-SARE) program to bring more social science research into its portfolio of  projects. Our concern is that by providing best management practices (Band-Aids) to a fundamentally unsustainable agricultural system, the sustainable agriculture movement (and SARE’s granting program) favors the environmental component at the expense of economic and social “legs” of the sustainable stool. While focusing on the history and work of the SARE program, we provided a social science perspective on sustainable agriculture.

They then have this to say about the goals of the issue:  

One of the three main pillars of sustainable agriculture is the enhancement of the quality of life for farmers and rural communities. There are two distinct strands of research in sustainable agriculture. One looks at production issues (and to a lesser extent marketing issues) and examines best management practices (BMPs) using sustainable techniques (usually substituting on-farm inputs for off-farm uses of agricultural chemicals and pesticides). While this area of research (normally conducted by plant and animal scientists at Land Grant Universities [LGU]) is helpful in reducing the adverse environmental effects of conventional agriculture, it leaves in place the present agricultural system.

The other strand of research explores the barriers and opportunities to transforming agriculture based on sustainable principles. It is this latter strand that this special issue of Southern Rural Sociology (SRS) addresses. Broadly, this type of work includes research related to: (1) the development of local/regional food systems that incorporate production, processing, and marketing; (2) the development of links between two or more different subsystems of the supply chain: production, processing, distribution, marketing, consumption; (3) the barriers and opportunities for the development of production and marketing cooperatives for alternative food products; and (4) similar topics that link issues of sustainable agriculture to community well-being. This SRS special issue flows from the efforts of the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (S-SARE) program’s efforts over the last few years to bring more social science research into the SARE portfolio of projects. We are concerned with the direction of sustainable agriculture research (both in the SARE program–regionally and nationwide–and in the sustainable agriculture movement overall) in providing best management practices (Band-Aids) to a fundamentally unsustainable system that needs to be reexamined.

There is more that could be said on this but I would make the case that a very similar type of self-examination could prove beneficial to the global agricultural industry in light of the present food crisis.  If you wanted to lay out a plan for introducing reform to the global food system you could do far worse than start by giving thought to local/regional food systems, links between supply chains, alternative food production and the impact of agriculture on community well-being.  Any chance that Josette Sheeran, Jacques Diouf, or Robert Zoellick are subscribers?  

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