The three pillars of agricultural sustainability include environmental, economic and social impacts. We’ve done a good job of calculating environmental impacts with life cycle analyses and other measures. Increasingly, we are finding the balance between achieving environmental objectives and boosting productivity. In addition, we’ve worked hard to ensure efficiencies in production through precision agriculture, pinpointing optimum inputs for maximum outputs, thus addressing economic concerns. I know this is counterintuitive, but few farmers think of compliance with U.S. labor, environments and safety laws as a competitive advantage, but in the context of sustainability, they are also a clear part of telling the story.

However, we have more to do in identifying and accounting for social impacts. Impacts to agricultural workers may seem obvious and simple to identify—ensuring worker health and safety and offering decent wages. However, on a global basis we also want to make sure that food, fiber and fuel are not produced by forced labor from slaves or prisoners or by children. In the U.S., with strong labor laws and a social compact that condemns such practices, we rarely even think about them. Nevertheless, we should. The sustainability effort is global, just as the market for U.S. agricultural goods is global, and these issues are vitally important in other parts of the world.

I want to suggest that we in the U.S. may be overlooking an opportunity presented by the positive social impacts of agricultural production, and that we may be well served by looking at trade policy and trade restrictions as a key consideration in sustainability calculations. There’s more to determining sustainability than environmental issues, and we should look at the distortions resulting from tariffs and other protective strategies countries sometimes employ to give their “local” products an edge over imported ones.

We’ve seen protests over ready-to-wear garments produced in sweatshops. But who is looking at sustainability with an eye toward foodstuffs that are cheap in-country or in export markets not only because they are government-subsidized but because of non-tariff trade barriers? All of these can distort sound land management decisions.

A key economic principle of sustainable intensification is maximizing production on the most productive land. An important environmental corollary is maintaining fragile environments rather than plowing them up for marginal production. We need to extend our concern internationally from just the environmental impact of production to include the health and welfare of those who cultivate the fields and care for the livestock. The evidence is strong that it is often more sustainable to produce food, feed and animal protein in the U.S. and export it around the globe than to increase production in many countries on marginal lands. Some of the more progressive environmental groups get this, but many do not.

In the U.S., we’ve placed increasing emphasis on locally sourced products—and this can make sense for many reasons. But there are times when efficiency, labor practices and optimum land use argue for exports or imports—whether across the country or across the ocean. And our sustainability objectives need to take social factors as well as market and production efficiencies into consideration. Retailers and consumers that are interested in sustainability should be as concerned about free trade and the welfare of the agricultural workers who produce the food they buy as well as environmental issues—these are also important sustainability considerations.

Highly efficient transportation systems, enhanced by the deepening of the Panama Canal, reduce transport costs and enable U.S. products to be competitive, especially when social concerns about production come into play. We have the productive land and the protective social policies to produce grain, meat and dairy sustainably and profitably. We need those who care about sustainability objectives to consider all impacts and recognize that sustainable production is not necessarily only local production and that imports and exports can be sustainable. It is time for the sustainability community to acknowledge that free and fair trade will advance their objectives, provided all impacts weigh into the equation.

If we want to ensure resiliency in agricultural production in a time of climate change, prevent destruction of fragile ecosystems and avoid exploitation of farm laborers, we need to emphasize sustainable intensification in agricultural practices internationally and in the efforts that support global marketing. It’s understandable that countries would prefer to be self-sufficient in producing food, fuel and fiber, but that’s not always the best solution economically, environmentally or socially. It makes more sense globally to produce food on the most productive land, distribute it through the most efficient channels and ensure that workers who tend the livestock and till the fields receive their due.

Let’s not leave the positive impacts of sustainability out of our calculations, especially as we look at the next round of trade agreements. It is time for the sustainability community to embrace robust, free and open trade as a sustainability objective.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.


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