The concept of sustainability
within food production has received a lot of press, both positive and sceptical,
within recent years. The time has come, however, to assess the meaning, the
viability and the potential development of such a method; once heralded by environmentalists
as the way forward but generally dismissed by cash-strapped food producers as
an ineffective use of time and money.

Explaining sustainability
is not easy because the practice essentially demands a multi-faceted definition.
Preoccupied with the overarching problem of how to effectively maintain a food
supply for the world’s rapidly expanding population, science over the last fifteen
years has gradually begun to unravel its increasingly specialised fields and
create a more interdisciplinary approach. This is epitomised in the concept
of sustainability. It demands a triple line of ecological management, economic
performance and social enhancement. Each of these concepts is largely justifiable
individually, but to create a system that “aims to satisfy human needs
in a lasting way” (Aventis) they must be given equal weight under a vision
of holistic direction and environmental stewardship.

Necessary system for the environment

Guaranteeing a food supply
means protecting the environment, and it is therefore important to minimise
the harmful effects of human agricultural techniques on animal habitat and long-term
resources. Environmental problems are localised, but several aspects can be
identified globally. At a time when the availability of chemical pesticides
is guaranteed and even increasing, sustainable farming calls for a long-term
strategy incorporating biological pest control and weed management.

generally do the job in hand but they also push accountancy on behalf of the
farmer by facilitating intensive methods that are not necessarily positive for
the environment in the long term. The hydrogen peroxide (H2O 2) pesticide currently
approved for use in salmon farming certainly kills sea lice but it is also stressful
for fish. Other methods of pest prevention can be employed, more time-consuming
perhaps, but in the long term more conducive to environmental diversity. Governments
need to institute a policy that makes pollutants pay, while assistance is given
to those wanting to adopt a more organic approach.

Finding the funds for sustainable production

The “greener”
sustainable process needs to be viable economically. Smaller companies are often
highly leveraged, and therefore too vulnerable to depend on the long-term approach
when financing conversion to sustainable production methods. Grants and funds
are becoming increasingly available, but these are often region-, district-
or nation-specific and the onus is currently largely on food producers themselves
to come up with the cash.

Costs can be reduced – for
example, sustainable shrimp farmers use feeding trays to reduce loss to sediment
– but some are not desirable and most are out of the control of individual producers.
Attempts to reduce the cost of seed are dependent on the competitive nature
of the hatchery industry. Similarly, a country’s infrastructure has much to
do with the costs of food production and this is often reflected in the way
that development banks worldwide regularly promote assistance loans for environmentally
sound technology transfer that are only for developing countries.

investment needs to generate tangible returns and it is often assumed that environmentally
sound technology is a drag on corporate productivity, but some sustainable firms
do manage to remain competitive by implementing new product specifications,
essentially by developing what Texas Tach University’s Sustainable
Pork™ Programme
calls a “niche” market. Increasing the
farm-gate value with innovative marketing techniques, such as promoting the
quality of product, brand image, labelling and disease certification, can make
the sustainable approach pay, in both domestic and international markets.

Loch Fyne Oysters – a
case study

One example of a successful
sustainable business in practice can be found on the west coast of Scotland,
at Loch Fyne Oysters.
The operation currently farms five million oysters a year, and harvests one
million of them to supply high-class restaurants and hotels worldwide at a fixed
rate of 10% above cost price. Establishing a cooperative venture with a pioneering
salmon farm in Loch Duart, which fosters partnership between salmon farmers
and users of the marine environment, the brand also markets sustainable stocks
that are soaked in small batches over whiskey barrel chips. In the latest initiative,
18 miles of mussel ropes were laid in the loch for natural production. The company,
explains technical director Andrew Lane, has “never gone for volume,”
appreciating instead the importance of branding and the effect the supermarket
label often has in promoting productivity at the expense of careful production.

Established in 1977, the
business was becoming viable in its own right by 1980, and now over twenty years
later new avenues are being explored for development. The market gradually changed
in Britain as consumers acquired a taste for more seafood and sister company
Loch Fyne Restaurants was born. It now represents 30% of the annual turnover
of LFO and with an expansion drive earmarked for next year the dishes are proving
popular. From its website, the company now has 12 000 home order addresses.

Social sustainability?

Despite creating a successful
business economically, Loch Fyne enterprises are remaining close to their roots.
This means that for a remote Scottish village of around 100 people, 70 are employed
by the company, providing an apposite example of the third sustainable factor
necessary for long-term viability. The social components of sustainable production
are expounded most blatantly by the Sustainable Pork™ Programme, which
was awarded the USDA label last year. In its mission statement, the project
leaders reveal that the pork “is produced in a manner that is friendly
to the animals, the environment, the workers and the local community.”

Across the US, the phenomenon
of Teikei is spreading. Translated literally as “putting the farmer’s
face on food” the concept, born in Japan, is one of Community Supported
Agriculture (CSA) where shareholders purchase shares in the season’s harvest,
guaranteeing the farmer an income during his most expensive time, and themselves
a weekly food parcel. Such schemes emphasise the current preoccupation with
security of food supplies, and assist the creation of a sustainable supply through
symbiotic relationships.

How do you know when
sustainability is reached?

demands a triple line of ecological management, economic performance and
social enhancement.”

One of the hardest tasks
with the sustainability concept is ascertaining when it has been achieved. No
list of performance indicators has been compiled and while many would suggest
measuring the food supply, this is obviously not the only concern. The system
needs to be regenerative as a whole, with constant production, stabilised input,
and economic viability. Also the energy flow into the system must be stabilised
with a view to conserving fossil-based fuel and use solar energy, or some other
renewable source such as the wind or sea.

Other factors can improve
with time. In the case of Loch Fyne Oysters and salmon, better feed, cleaner
environment and no pesticides create healthier, more disease-resistant stock.
Much has been said about the relationship between the intensity of farming methods
and disease, and while it has not been proved, a pattern is emerging which appears
to favour sustainable techniques. Similarly, community dynamics can improve
as rotation and integration of livestock increase biodiversity. Loch Fyne now
hosts increased numbers of langoustine and there are also plans to reintroduce
the stocks of highland cattle to the area, which would also enable the regeneration
of oak, rowan, birch and other native broadleaves.

How do sustainable systems

This analysis of sustainable
food production leaves a final question; how can it develop? At first it seems
something of an oxymoron: the very meaning of sustainability being to create
equilibrium between the producer and the produced in the biosphere and geosphere,
but there are two main developments that can increase the potential and even
the popularity of the concept.

Firstly, it is always possible
to further improve technology for sustainable practice. This may include food
production techniques or the development of more environmentally friendly packaging.
The Sustainable Pork Project declared that it wanted to “improve technology
in intensive outdoor systems… and worker training.” The process is
extremely management intensive; strategic, proactive and sensitive at every
corporate and agricultural level, so research and teaching institutions have
a potentially significant role to play.

The second development is
that of the market. Creating the market for sustainable food has a lot to do
with consumer image, proving the power of food buyers to drive the market. Farmers
markets are becoming increasing popular in countries where specific cultural
influences favour organic and green products. Similarly, in recent years, it
has become essential for Asian shrimp farms to prove to the US market that their
poor image of social and environmental development has been rejuvenated to become
sustainable before imports were banned.

are often blamed for neglecting environmentally friendly values in favour of
demands of quantity but with increasing consumer demand for organic, greener
food, there is much to be done in the retail arena. A spokeswoman from UK supermarket
Waitrose explained
to that: “Sustainable farming is very important to us. We
have a unique relationship with individual farmers as we buy direct… and
the standards we require [from producers] are very difficult to meet.”
Waitrose is currently managing a waiting list for producers, who are attracted
by the fact that the company pays a premium.

This method of sourcing
food is rare however, and if the food supply is to remain sustainable in the
long term more retailers will need to follow Waitrose’s lead. The mechanisms
are often in place for promoting and developing sustainable food production,
but while the full-scale adoption of such methods will doubtless be slow, the
tangible benefits may be reaped almost immediately.