Revisiting Ethics in Sustainable Agriculture


Sustainable agriculture is by nature, an ethical industry. By definition it is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way (Permaculture Design Manual), and leads to farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities and animal welfare. Those of us who are drawn to practicing or supporting these techniques inherently know it is the right way to live in the world in which we dwell. The philosophy behind sustainable agriculture was a response, mostly by small family farmers, to over industrialized agriculture beginning in the early 1900’s. As time progressed the movement gained more and more followers and in the 1960’s it grew to include voices from the greater public with the emergence of the green and “back to the land” movements. It was at this time when people fled their urban and suburban lives both in an effort to debunk the societal “system” and to take part in caring for the earth and its people. This was a pivotal cultural time, however, more energy was given to everyday moments and fighting against current day injustices than was given to planning for the larger picture and finding solutions for a more sustainable future. Although major environmental and agricultural problems were identified and fought to overcome with organic farming in the 1960’s, a grounded system and cultural philosophy that made a long-standing difference would take more time to evolve.

This is precisely from where the permaculture philosophy was born. That is, seeing a need to find a lasting way forward and three ethical foundations set the stage for another movement. Let’s take a moment and revisit these ethics that are at the core of our mission as agriculturists.

Care of the Earth — Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. First and foremost, we must take personal responsibility, accounting for all our actions. Evolve self-interested ideas of human survival to include the survival of natural systems. Every interaction with another element allows for multiple life-sustaining opportunities (Bill Mollison). Never exploit the landscape or its living systems. All living things have an intrinsic worth. You can’t create anything, only assemble elements towards positive evolutions (Geoff Lawton). We must nurture and provide ongoing care for the earth to avoid consequences. Work with the natural systems instead of in competition with them and make personal choices that help the earth prosper.

Care of People — Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence. Foster an interdependence which values the individual’s contributions rather than forms of opposition or competition. See all humankind as family and all life as allied associations. People care expands to species care, for all life has common origins (Bill Mollison). A redefinition of wealth, based more in the abundance of values such as clean air, clean water, nutrient-rich food, sensible housing, and strong communities (Geoff Lawton). If people’s needs are met the surrounding environment will prosper. Focus on the non-material well-being of your community.

Return of Surplus – By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles. To accumulate wealth, power, or land beyond one’s needs in a limited world is to be truly immoral, be it as an individual, an institution, or a nation-state. Every object must responsibly provide for its replacement; society must, as a condition of use, replace an equal or greater resource than that used (Bill Mollison). Return of surplus to the first two ethics continues the corollary effect. Earth care leads to people care. Return of surplus to earth care and people care completes the sustainable system while moderating our consumption and population growth (Geoff Lawton).

These ethics were, and still are, a foundation to work for not only permaculturists, but for all people living on the earth, trying to make a living, and caring for their loved ones.

In the decades that followed since this foundation was laid, organic and sustainable agriculture have come a long way and have found their way into the mainstream. Today getting into farming is less a rejection of modern society as it is a desire to contribute to an integral part of popular culture. Many people are learning techniques to become better home gardeners in the city and otherwise, shop regularly at farmer’s markets and make dining choices based on the availability of fresh, organic ingredients. Food is undeniably in. Sustainable agriculture is in fact, a growing industry and young entrepreneurs especially are grabbing hold of this food first trend. This is a phenomenal trend, one that has been building slowly, and that we should all support and get behind because there is plenty more work to be done. But as the population continues to grow, the world around us moves faster and faster, and we are constantly tethered to the Internet; it is imperative to stop and remember the roots from which this trend was born. If not, we eventually may have to start all over again.

It is no surprise that the driving force behind the new food movement is from Generation Y, those born in the early 1980’s through the early 2000’s and thought to be the “Me Generation.” They get this title because there is a perception that they are self-centered, confident and individualist, lacking some of the empathy for others that previous generations had. Theories point to social media as one of the major culprits of this cultural development as it keeps heavy users physically and emotionally distant from those that they interact with. The emphasis becomes more on me and my own needs, than on others and society as a whole. At the same time, Generation Y is said to be less interested in consumerism and material goods than their elders and want to make a difference with their work. So the new generation may be in for themselves, but what they are into is generally infused with a lot of soul and resourcefulness.

So where does a population of young, working, social media using, sustainable food loving, creative, confident, self-absorbed people leave us? On the one hand, with a strong force willing to take a crack at getting into this industry on their own terms. It is a powerhouse population that gets things done. On the other hand, there is the fear that as a whole we are moving away from the foundational ethics of permaculture and living in a more “in it for me” reality. And that continuing in this direction is not sustainable for the earth or our communities. With all this youthful energy around food and a great willingness to engage in a true purpose, the work we have ahead of us is to recognize the lessons of the past and integrate them with the realities of the present. Here we will find balance and navigate a way forward. It is not one way or another, but a mash up of all the experiences that have gotten us to this exciting and hopeful time.

If we look at the trends in food and agriculture, what we are promoting are elements of the past- earth-based products grown and created with care for our local economies. Anyone who is connected to food at all today knows that the last decade has seen a tremendous burst in the market for small batch, artisanal products. We are harkening back to a different time and while the infrastructure of how we disseminate our information has changed, we must take lessons from the past to ensure that we are on the right track for the long term. Look to the fourth generation farmer that was at the forefront the sustainable agriculture movement as they rejected industrialized practices that would have surely made them more money. These farmers have been running sustainable businesses for eighty years. Look to the founders of permaculture who spread a philosophy of human and agricultural design across the world, little by little, by writing books and teaching courses. These people should be our role models because they remained even through the trends, stuck to their guns and continued to produce a high-quality products while taking care of their land and their community. Throughout time they have stayed in line with their own ethics. They’ve learned from those before them, trusted in that knowledge and passed it on. It works.

The reality is a successful start-up takes gumption, determination, risk, mistakes, exposure and whole lot of plain hard work—in any industry. Sustainable agriculture is no different. And while the work is with the earth, today’s small-scale agriculturist needs to keep pace with a demanding market that includes using technology and keeping close tabs on what their consumer wants. And sometimes it gets tricky. Sometimes a business owner, especially a new one, makes quick decisions based on initial gratification before overall ethics and long-term sustainability. Technology is an enormous player in business today in a way that it was not, even ten years ago. We literally promote ourselves and our lives digitally and expect new information every second. Previous generations did not have so many outlets to self-promote, nor was it such a common and necessary practice to succeed. A strong work ethic, commitment, and putting in the time was more the mantra.

Today a new generation of growers has been taught to immerse themselves in their work, spread their message like wildfire on the Internet, and success will follow. There is value in this method too because the Internet is where we find our information. What we need to work at is finding a cohesive blend of these approaches, at applying the value of technology to the foundation of permaculture—Earth, People, and particularly Return of Surplus. There is a time to take what we need and a time to share our abundance with others. There is a time to self-promote and time to stand back and encourage the evolution of this movement. We must share our resources and skills, support each other and collaborate not always expecting self-recognition. Sometimes it will be there and often it won’t but in the end, we are all in this together and the more we spread the good, the better off we are in the long run. If you’ve chosen the path of sustainable agriculture in this life you are choosing an ethical road. And if you are building a business or a system of trade along this road, your work is appreciated. Your work is needed. No matter what generation you hail from though, what’s important is to stand by what you are doing, believe in your work because it ethically sound, continue to grow beautiful food, and care for people around you. The rest will take care of itself. Strive to take lessons from the people that have come before you as well as the youngsters that are doing it differently. We would all agree that there is work to be done. A lot of work to be done still. So let’s take what we have in front of us—history, technology, youth, experience, earth and keep building a sustainable future for everyone.

One Comment

  1. Well said!
    As a young person (30) who has decided to go into farming since discovering Permaculture I have a couple of insights into how I’m being perceived.I have just taken on a 10 acre banana farm that has been mismanaged and left to go pretty much wild for the last three years. Beforx that is was done ‘traditionally’ with roundup and super phosphate fertilisers. Any of the old fellas around me think I am crazy to go spray-free and chemical fertiliser free but ethically there is no other choice for me and I am determined to use modern technologies and ‘new-school’ farming techniques provide what I believe will be a more superior and much more sustainable product. Ingrained practices within farming industries are hard to shift but I hope slowly that my neighbors will come around as they see me succeed with my strange ways. One thing I know though is they are really happy to see a young fella having a crack and I am sure my Grandfather who was a cattle farmer is looking down on me with pride as I choose to become a man on the land. Permaculture resonated with me because it has solutions for some of the biggest problems we have and I look forward to a long career in this field. Thankyou for your article.
    Kind Regards

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