Scientific Alliance ponders sustainability

Things may not be as simple as they seem
There is a strand of thought in modern, sophisticated societies which yearns for a simpler life. This is understandable; the complexities of living in the 21st century can be stressful. A quiet life in the country sounds idyllic to people balancing the demands of a job, urban living and paying for it all. But part of this philosophy extends beyond avoiding the stresses of everyday life and wants to turn the clock back to a time when everything, including farming, was simpler and somehow ‘better’.
By this reckoning, it is important not just to lead a less hectic life, but also to consume in a more ‘sustainable’ way. The s-word has now become shorthand for all that is good and environmentally friendly; we may not know what it means, but it has warm, comforting connotations and is undeniably A Good Thing (to take the 1066 and all that approach). But, like so many other common terms, few people can actually define sustainability, at least in any meaningful way.
The conventional Brundtland formulation, in full, says that:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”
In itself, this seems a worthy aspiration, but a little thought throws up some problems. Not least of these is the open-endedness. Just how far in the future should we be looking? Do we need to ration resources we judge to be finite on the basis of how much we expect future generations to use? How do we make meaningful judgements about how our grandchildren might be living in 2050?
Projecting population numbers is not too difficult, but can we have any realistic idea about how they might live their lives? After all, our current lives would have seemed almost inconceivable only a couple of generations ago. The all-pervasive nature of electronic communications has had a major impact on the way we live our lives and do business, but would have seemed like science fiction. Straight line projections would have been made from the situation pertaining at the time, and the great majority of these would have been not just wrong, but wildly wrong.
The promotion of the simple life is not a new phenomenon; Rousseau’s championing of the ‘noble savage’ in the 18th century has been very influential, but similar examples would be found in much earlier civilizations by those prepared to search. But in today’s world this longing for the simple life has raised questions about how our food is produced and distributed. There are many who question the present focus on intensification of farming and complex patterns of international trade and national transport. Eat local is the message we regularly hear; only consume food grown in the local area. Goodbye year-round strawberries and farewell bananas.
An interesting slant on this comes from Thanet Earth ( which, when complete, will be the UK’s largest greenhouse complex, growing salad vegetables (tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers) hydroponically. All very high tech and, by most reckoning, an environmentalist’s nightmare, being both very intensive and needing significant amounts of energy to light and heat. But the developers have made great efforts to minimise resource use by, for example, using gas-fired Combined Heat and Power units to heat and light greenhouses while providing additional power for the Grid (and also pumping some of the carbon dioxide from the CHP plants into the greenhouses to increase plant growth). Much of the water needed is stored runoff from the roofs.
This is undeniably a highly unnatural environment, but it is also a very efficient way to produce some crops and may be a significant part of farming in the temperate zone in years to come. Such intelligent intensification may not conform to many people’s idea of sustainable farming, but it cannot be ignored. But the ‘eat local’ approach suggests that there should be no need for such an operation, and that small-scale operations which provide food for the immediate area are the way forward.
One argument for this is that the complex web of international trade is vulnerable to disruption such as the fuel price protests in the UK a decade ago, wher
e blockades reduced food stocks to a few days’ supply. The counterargument is that committing to a sort of high-class subsistence farming system would be equally vulnerable (and wasteful in the case of over-production). Commonsense suggests that trading would take place, at least on a regional basis, and where might this stop?
The other factor which campaigners seem not to have realised is that the majority of consumers are simply not interested in moving away from the convenience of supermarket shopping. They would be happy to buy locally at times, but they are not going to change their whole lifestyle. The challenge for agriculture is to grow and supply food as efficiently as possible within whatever supply chain consumers are happy with.
Not that this stops the aspirations of politicians. The European Commission recently held a conference on the Common Agricultural Policy post-2013. According to a recent Euractiv report, there were many supporters of a shift from what is perceived as centralised, intensive production towards a ‘more territorial approach which values local differences as well as the environment’. This is the sort of approach which many would consider ‘sustainable’, but it is really difficult to see why this should be any more so than intensive, productive modern farming.
Despite claims to the contrary, there is nothing to suggest that intensive farming cannot produce high yields year after year; surely a key element of sustainability. It can also keep food more affordable, which covers one of the main parts of any social measure of sustainability. On the other hand, the thrust of the proposed CAP reform is that small-scale farmers should be subsidised to remain on the land.
While supporting the rural economy may be seen in many ways as A Good Thing, the other main aspect of sustainability is economic. If something cannot continue without subsidy, then sustainability goes out the window. A simple life may seem desirable to stressed city dwellers, but things are rarely as simple as they may appear.

The Scientific Alliance
St John’s Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0WS
Tel: +44 1223 421242

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