Redefining Sustainable Agriculture at PASA | Civil Eats

Redefining Sustainable Agriculture at PASA

One almost expected to see a Monsanto executive among the honored guests and presenters at the 19th annual Farming for the Future Conference held Feb. 4 – 6 in State College, Pa. After all, the St. Louis-based agri-giant was recently named “Company of the Year” by Forbes magazine. And in its well-funded advertising campaign that strategically targets such media outlets as National Public Radio, Monsanto proclaims itself to be the very champion of sustainability.

While many of the more than 2,200 attendees of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s yearly gathering would have gladly entertained a dialogue with a Monsanto representative, it’s safe to say they view the conference’s central concept in a quite different light.

In his opening remarks, PASA President Kim Seeley borrowed a phrase from architect and designer William McDonough, a previous year’s keynote speaker, and asked: “Does the end result love all the children? We will condone all forms of farming that will love the children.”

It’s hard to associate the maker and marketer of Roundup pesticide and poison-withstanding genetically modified seeds with “loving all the children.” Yet, that is what Monsanto–newly crowned by Forbes “for persevering in the face of vicious criticism to feed the world”–would have us believe through what writer Ken Edelstein has called a “greenwash marketing” campaign that is “positively Rovian on the chutzpah meter.” Equally credibility-straining is Elanco, Ely Lilly and Company’s animal-health division, which in 2008 purchased the Posilac brand of synthetic bovine-growth hormone from Monsanto. Elanco’s president has been on a speaking tour promoting a technology-dependent program of “Sustainability and Feeding the World.”

Obviously, a different take on technology from that of most who attended the conference.

And in a recent call-to-arms speech delivered in Seattle, American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman railed against those he called “extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the days of 40 acres and a mule” and against “misguided, activist-driven regulation on labor and environment being proposed in Washington.” Further, Stallman called sustainability “the most overused and ill-defined word in the policy arena today.”

Finally, a patch, however small, of common ground.

“I completely agree that the term ‘sustainability’ is overused and often confused for something it’s not by those who try to use it,” PASA Executive Director Brian Snyder said in his stage-setting conference speech. “So, I have an idea–how about if you, Mr. Stallman, and your counterparts at Monsanto and Elanco stop using it! We can handle this one, and have been doing so quite ably for several decades now.”

Snyder said it is impossible to overlook the deliberate attempt by sustainable agriculture’s detractors to dilute the dream and goals PASA and its members aspire to in order that their objective of putting profitability above all else does not fail.

Not that profitability was ignored during the Farming for the Future conference. Quite the contrary. Neither was the concept of “small” farming, currently a pejorative term in Washington and elsewhere, where those who use that word, according to Snyder, “get immediately pigeonholed and tossed aside as a probable relic of the past.”

Here, the common-ground borderline was crossed.

“There is nothing ‘small’ about what any member of PASA is doing with respect to our food system, whether as a producer, processor or consumer, regardless of any volume specifications,” Snyder said.

“People like to hear about lots of acres or large numbers of animals and bushels of corn per acre measured in the hundreds,” he continued. “But models of farming that can gross $50,000 to $100,000 on a single acre, or Community Supported Agriculture programs that, in some cases and on relatively small acreage, are able to count their customers in the thousands and bank $1 million or more in the spring before even planting a seed, are anything but small!”

A non-genetically-modified seed, he might have added.

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Snyder said that a second misconception held as incontrovertible truth in the halls of power is the notion that “we cannot feed the world this way,” that only industrial food systems can do so.

“We must encourage everyone, wherever they are and as a priority, to eat food produced as near to their own homes as possible,” Snyder said. “Secondly, feed thy neighbor as thyself. From this perspective, local food not only can feed the world, it may be the only way to ever feed the world in a healthy and just manner.”

Few involved with farming, even of the sustainable variety, relish increased government regulation. But Snyder likened what he called the “Stallman Doctrine”–a “Don’t Cap Our Future”-sloganed, war-like resistance to a cap-and-trade system or any proposal to limit farming’s environmental impact–to a modern re-emergence of Manifest Destiny, “wherein we take and use what we believe was divinely ordained for us to have, regardless of the consequences for others.”

By contrast, Snyder said a truly sustainable farmer wakes every morning with two thoughts in mind. The first is one of gratitude that the land we are privileged to own, rent or be paid to cultivate has been given to us, and we must give it back in better shape than we found it.

“Second,” Snyder said, “we as individual farmers are limited and essentially dependent on each other to figure out what’s best to do with this land in order to honor it, improve it and make a living from it and one day to deliver it back to the source from whence it came.”

“It’s all about maintaining a ‘right relationship’ with the land, which,” he said, “is analogous to the good relationships we hope for in other aspects of our lives as well.”

Or, at the end of the day, does it truly love all the children, and will it give them a good Earth to love, as well?

That–regardless of what corporate farmers and the companies they serve will tell you–is what sustainable agriculture is really all about.


In contrast to the Stallman Doctrine – an unwillingness to work as hard as possible to save our beautiful planet – PASA Executive Director Brian Snyder offered the Promise of Sustainability.

“We understand that this world is not really ours to do with as we please and that we must work together to make it better,” Snyder said. From this perspective, here are some things sustainable farmers choose for themselves, rather than depend on government regulations or ballot initiatives to force upon them:

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  • We would do everything possible to protect the Earth, its water, air and climate systems, and to cherish and protect our great watersheds, including especially here in the Mid-Atlantic region, that which feeds the Chesapeake Bay.
  • We would never lock up livestock of any kind for prolonged periods in restrictive cages or crates where they can’t even turn around or care for their young in a natural manner.
  • We would not treat cows with artificial growth hormones, either for profit or the pride to be gained from seeing how much milk we can force them to give. We would also never feed antibiotics to animals for the sake of speeding their growth, especially in the absence of medical need.
  • We would take whatever pre-emptive steps may be necessary – even if less than 100 percent certain – to protect our bees and other pollinators, and also to promote the diversity and integrity of seeds we depend on to produce food, avoiding advanced technological strategies that might otherwise undermine or diminish them.
  • In dealing with our neighbors around the world, we would reject the political philosophy of Free Trade in favor of Fair Trade.
  • We would treat with dignity immigrant and migrant laborers who are needed to work our fields, care for our animals and generally keep our food system moving, and welcome them as full members of our communities as they choose and are able to settle here.
  • We would teach and assist the citizens, communities and countries of a hungry world to feed themselves as we would wish to be fed.
  • We would build our entire food system on the concept that fair prices for farmers will keep wholesome, nutritious and safe food on our tables without fail.

Corporate entities such as Monsanto and Elanco–Ely Lilly Company’s animal-health division, which owns the Posilac brand of synthetic bovine growth hormone–lay claim to “sustainability,” thereby distorting its meaning and diluting its promise.

The president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, no ally of sustainable agriculture, recently called “sustainability” the most overused and ill-defined word in the policy arena.

Perhaps we can help.

The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture has recently partnered with Food Alliance, based in Portland, Oregon, to deliver a trusted, third-party certification to our region’s farms, processors, food buyers and consumers. The Food Alliance Certified seal ensures safe and fair working conditions, humane treatment of animals and careful stewardship of ecosystems. Here is how Food Alliance answers the question, “What is sustainable agriculture?”

Sustainable agriculture:

  • Provides safe and fair working conditions. It creates a work environment with open communication about workplace safety and job satisfaction, with incentives and opportunities for development of employee skills; it considers quality-of-life issues for farm workers and their communities.
  • Ensures the health and humane treatment of animals. It raises livestock with respect for their physical needs and comforts; it provides livestock with access to sunlight, fresh air and an environment where they can socialize and express normal behaviors; it handles livestock with care to minimize fear and stress.
  • Does not use hormone or antibiotic supplements. It raises animals without using hormones or antibiotics to stimulate growth or productivity; it uses antibiotics only to treat a sick animal and return it to health, not as a substitute for healthy living conditions.
  • Does not raise genetically modified crops or livestock. It raises crops or livestock that are not derived from transgenic or genetically modified organisms in order to respect public concern over potential impacts on human or environmental health.
  • Reduces pesticide use and toxicity. It practices integrated pest management by using field scouting and cultural and biological controls to avoid pest problems; it minimizes risks to human health and the environment by selecting least toxic pest treatments and using best practices for application.
  • Protects water resources. It protects water quality and riparian habitat by providing buffer zones along streams; it manages tillage to maximize the ability of soils to absorb rainfall; it manages animal wastes to prevent ground and surface water contamination.
  • Protects and enhances soil resources. It protect soils by maximizing plant cover, rotating crops and using cover crops to enrich soil and increase productivity; it uses management-intensive grazing; it uses tillage methods that protect soil quality and promote soil conservation.
  • Provides wildlife habitat. It encourages vegetative cover, food and water resources necessary for habitat; it establishes biological corridors; it manages mowing and grazing cycles to minimize impact on wildlife; it protects and restores wetland, prairie and woodland habitats.
  • Continually improves practices. It sets annual goals for improving performance in areas addressed under Food Alliance certification; it evaluates and reports progress on goals annually.

For more information, go to

Rich Kerstetter is a freelance writer based in Millheim, Pa. Read more >

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  1. annie
    i love this article!! thanks so much for putting it out there. sharing on facebook!
  2. Tom
    I am having problems understanding how any tillage can be uttered much less supported in a sustainable agriculture organization. Not one mention of Rodale Institute's Organic no till, or Dakota Lakes no till research. Dakota Lakes senior researcher Dwayne Beck in addition to research, educates no till farmers on new ways to reduce herbicide and synthetic fertilizer usage while building soil structure, soil organic matter, and essential soil microbes.

    Tillage creates a compaction layer in soil, a hard layer of soil that water has problems penetrating and plant roots won't penetrate making the plants more drought prone. Tillage destroys macropores that allows water and oxygen move into the soil.

    Tillage leaves the soil bare with nothing to keep it from washing or blowing away. When ever a heavy rain fall event occurs soil is washed off the fields taking nutrients with it. When the wind blows across bare soil moves lots of dirt with, inaddition to that the act of tillage creates a tremendous amount of dust. Dust particulate is a real problem and is being reviewed by environmental agencies.

    Whenever tillage takes place Carbon that is stored in the soil is released. No till farmers are learning more about the importance of Soil Organic Carbon and the role it place in plant and soil health.

    Tillage requires a tremendous amount of diesel fuel. Diesel exhaust is full of pollutants so tillage can not be part of an environmental sustainable approach.
  3. Amerigo
    I agree with everything you point out about no-till’s advantages in regards to soil quality, soil carbon, and reduction of soil erosion. Except maybe the notion that you are “having problems understanding how any tillage can be uttered much less supported in a sustainable agriculture organization”. Let’s not forget, until Rodale’s Organic no-till came along, no-till meant almost exclusively tremendous amounts of herbicide, and more often than not roundup-ready. (And most conventional no-till still does). I think most organic farmers realize that organic ag has been too reliant on tillage and aggressive cultivation, and most are working to find alternatives. It is good to hear, “No till farmers are learning more about the importance of Soil Organic Carbon and the role it place in plant and soil health.” But again, let’s not forget that Organic farmers have been emphasizing organic matter since salt fertilizers first hit the scene. I think no-till is rapidly evolving and improving, and Rodale’s methods and conventional methods will probably meet in the middle sometime in the next ten years. And while organic ag may just be catching up on tillage methods, no-till advocates are just catching up to what organic farmers have been saying for years.

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