The buzz phrase in environmental articles: sustainable agriculture.
It’s nuanced — maybe even a little lofty. And experts in the field say there’s debate over what the word really means. But it’s been weaving itself into policies at Cal Poly for the past 30 years, and it’s probably here to stay.
One of the first prominent uses of sustainability in reference to agriculture was from Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill.
The law stated that long-term sustainable agriculture would become an integrated system of plant and animal production that satisfied human food needs, enhanced the natural resource base that agriculture draws from, made efficient use of nonrenewable resources, kept feasible economic practices and enhanced the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
It was an ambiguous definition that left a lot of room for interpretation.
“People quibble over the word ‘sustainability’ and whether we should be calling it ‘regenerative’ or ‘resilient’ or things like that,” said Hunter Francis, director and founder of the Cal Poly Center for Sustainability. “But I think the main point in all of this is … that we don’t expend all of our resources in a way that will make it difficult for future generations to be able to meet their needs.”
It’s a sentiment that Horticulture and Crop Science department head Scott Steinmaus said he thinks is already prevalent for most people working on the ground in the industry.
“There is no farmer who doesn’t want to be able to hand over their farm to the next generation,” Steinmaus said in an email. “How you define sustainable is very easy from a desk and extremely difficult from a tractor cab, and less than 1 percent of the workforce is in a tractor cab … it is easy to point fingers when you have a cush job in a bank.”
Cal Poly and other universities nationwide took a more definitive step toward sustainability in 2004 by signing the Talloires Declaration. Universities pledged to create more sustainable campuses by collaborating with people outside of the college members and promoting sustainability programs.
“It basically says that the signatory university will try to incorporate sustainability into the curriculum, and will also work toward the food on campus more sustainable in terms of its facilities and operations,” Francis said.
Additionally, Cal Poly was one of the 23 California State Univeristy (CSU) campuses impacted by the approval of the CSU Sustainability Policy in 2014. The policy required universities to focus on several key areas to move toward more sustainable campus environments. The creation of improved waste and water management, sustainable food services and procurement and a climate action plan all made the list.
Cal Poly’s Climate Action Planning Conference held its first meeting this past August.
“The growth of interest in sustainability (at Cal Poly) is reflective of the growth of interest in sustainability in society,” Francis said.
The Center for Sustainability has been around since 2000, and has grown over the years because of support from administration and community members, according to Francis.
Regarding agriculture, the organic agriculture program has been able to hire new faculty in recent years to focus on production systems. Meanwhile, everything from soil and water conservation to sustainable vineyard practices, to managed grazing programs have come to the forefront of programs at Cal Poly.
And Swanton Pacific Ranch, a 3,200-acre property in Santa Cruz County that was donated to Cal Poly in 1993, now includes “organic vegetable production … wonderful grazing programs, they produce grass-fed beef, and sustainable certified forests,” Francis said.
Student-run programs such as the Real Food Cooperative — created in 2013 as a business arm to the Real Food Collaborative — also promote sustainable food practices on campus by distributing local and mostly organic food products, according to environmental management and protection senior Jesse Gibson, the cooperative’s co-founder and former president.
“We’re trying to nudge people toward a plant-based diet,” Gibson said. “You generally eat food three times a day, it’s something you encounter a lot. So changing that just a little bit can aggregate a lot of change.”
A recent study from the Oxford Martin School supports that, having found that global adoption of vegetarian diets could help avoid up to 7.3 million deaths by the year 2050 — while the implementation of vegan diets could avoid 8.1 million deaths.
Further, the study found that the widespread application of vegetarian diets could cut projected greenhouse emissions by as much as 63 percent by 2050. And it could save $700 billion-$1,000 billion per year on health care, unpaid informal care and lost work days.
“If you’re in a difficult situation where you need to buy less expensive processed foods, I can understand,” Gibson said. “But most people going to Cal Poly are pretty privileged, and they should be using their purchasing power better.”
One of the best ways to keep moving forward with sustainability, according to Francis, is to continuously strive to do better and to keep the conversation going.
Cal Poly is now in the process of working with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). The program’s self-reporting sustainability checklist — the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) — allows participating campuses to create a baseline for sustainability to grow from and generate new ideas with other participating campuses.
“We’ve committed to completing that program,” Francis said. “So that’s going to be happening this year.”
The obligation to the program could help churn the wider conversation of what sustainability is and how to support it.
“In my mind, that’s the first place to start,” Francis said. “To let people know the current initiative that we do have. And then really lend their support to those projects in a meaningful way, whether it’s the grazing program, or the organic program, or programs for conservation — all of these things need support.”
Cal Poly could do more small things to bring sustainable practices into the limelight, including simple changes such breaking down composting options with more specific signage as to what can be composted, according to Gibson.
Cal Poly has one of the nation’s largest university composting stations, Francis said, and using it to the fullest extent could improve the processing of organic material, keeping it out of landfills.
“There could also be more aggressive efforts to serve more healthy food on campus,” Gibson said. “I think they’re on the right course, but they could be doing a better job … maybe by having a less adversarial attitude toward criticism.”
And at the end of the day, working toward sustainable agriculture has co-benefits that could appeal to people whether or not they’re invested in sustainability.
“It also transfers to a cost savings,” Francis said, explaining that utilizing sustainable techniques can be just as beneficial for the banker as they are for the farmer, by making the product able to generate longer and better over time.
“We have to look for approaches to meet our needs across society,” he said. “Whether that’s in agriculture or any other sector, in a way that will be viable in the long term.”