WASHINGTON, April 2, 2014 - Here’s help, maybe: Merriam-Webster defines “sustainability” as “involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources.”

Here’s less help: According to BASF Global, a leading producer of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, there are at least 70 indicators of “sustainability,” with company metrics for the word spanning the supply chain. Generally, the firm defines the word as “minimizing risks, taking advantage of business opportunities [and] establishing trust-based relationships with our stakeholders,” according to its website.

It’s not a stretch to make the argument: Still vague.

Despite that, “sustainability” has become the byword of EU agriculture policy, especially as the 28 member states struggle to implement the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), reformed in 2013. “Sustainable intensification” – the idea that farms will actually become more productive if they’re managed in environmentally friendly ways – was the theme of this year’s Forum for Agriculture, a 1,500-person conference hosted by Syngenta and the European Landowners Organization in Brussels this week. 

In some ways, the struggle to define the term illustrates a theme familiar to American farmers – the gap between producers’ visions of themselves and those promulgated by their regulatory agencies.

The tussle between EU farmers and the European Commission is indeed reminiscent of daily spats between the American farming community and the EPA, pointed out Bob Young, American Farm Bureau’s chief economist and deputy executive director of Public Policy. “There have been a lawsuit or two involved,” he said in Brussels on Tuesday.

The wishy-washy nature of the term means that farmers aren’t always clear on their mandated “sustainability” goals. Sustainable intensification’s many definitions could be “dangerous,” agricultural economist Allan Buckwell told a Forum audience Tuesday. “[European] farmers are not convinced that what they’re doing is unsustainable,” he said. “It’s a dangerous situation we’re in. If we make statements that European agriculture is unsustainable…if this is being said and not believed, we’ve got a problem. It’s a definition and a measurement and an information exchange issue. Otherwise, we’ll be crying wolf and get nowhere.”

EU farmers, for their part, ask that sustainability efforts be left up to them, constructed in a bottom-up manner they say is antithetical to the EU’s approach thus far.

“In my village, there are 23 different types of soil in a two meter circle,” said Michael Salm-Salm, president of the German Landowners' Association. “That can’t be regulated from a Brussels perspective.”

But policymakers in Brussels, the seat of the regulatory European Commission, say producers like Salm-Salm aren’t paying attention to the wider picture. Policy regulating soil, for instance, isn’t just aimed at farmers, said Janez Potočnik, the Slovenian politician currently serving as the European Commissioner for Environment. It’s also aimed at negligent member states that fail to appropriately promote sustainability – states smaller and less organized than more successful Germany.

“If you think (all) member states are investing in (contaminated) brownfields, you are mistaken,” said Potočnik.

It’s a recognizable problem for U.S. farmers, who chafe under federal government seeking to balance environmental regulations with promoting successful domestic industries.

Dr. Martijn Gipmans, global sustainability coordinator at BASF, perhaps put it best at a pre-Forum meeting on Monday in Brussels.

“We accept that this topic (of sustainability) is complex,” he said. “What we should look for is metrics and measurements that don’t have anything to do with where the farm is located. “

It may just be that there are more than 70.


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