Are We Losing the Meaning of Sustainability?

A recent ad campaign from one of the world’s largest agribusinesses misuses and confuses the meaning of "sustainability."

| August/September 2009

  • meaning of sustainability - grain field
    Monsanto and sustainability. Biotech and green. Whether these terms can be closely linked or are mutually exclusive, the heart of the matter is the meaning of sustainability — whether we can live within our ecological means.

  • meaning of sustainability - grain field

“Having lost sight of our goals, we redouble our efforts.” — Mark Twain

In a recent magazine advertisement, Monsanto — one of the world’s largest agribusinesses and a purveyor of genetic engineering and agro-chemicals — has appointed itself a representative of “sustainable agriculture.”

In a certain context, they have a point.

Monsanto argues in its advertising campaign that we’ll need to double agricultural production by 2050 to feed 9 billion people in a world afflicted by climate change. The so-called “green revolution” of industrial agricultural that began in the late 1950s allowed us to exploit fossil fuel resources to sustain unprecedented rates of population growth. Therefore, Monsanto suggests, we’ll need more and better technology to survive our continuing growth.

At best, this strategy might carry us through the next 40 years or so. But then what?

“Sustainable” is a buzzword these days, attached to everything from roofing tar to dish soap. It is the best of our buzzwords — it’s more descriptive than “eco-friendly,” more specific than “green,” and more succinct than “environmentally sensitive” — but overuse is threatening to change the meaning of sustainability.

jim adams
11/11/2009 5:27:38 PM

There is a corporate strategy to take over the word "local"'s local if it is grown in the US; it is "local" (Walmart) because they have local potatoes in their local Walmart grocery; and the list goes on. This seems to be a similar example of a gigantic industry misusing words that we alternative type use to describe where we want to go in our future. The only strategy i know of is to: write letters, discuss, and above all, call Monsanto on its misuse of the words. Like (or find your own way of saying it): "Oh, that's just Monsanto trying to position itself to make big bucks. If they're truthful about themselves, they'd say they are only a little bit kinda-sorta sustainable. After all, they're the folks who push genetic engineering without oversight or responsibility; they're the folks who spent millions trying to intimidate and discredit small and organic farmers. And lots and lots more." "Check out My point is: Monsanto's Administrators and stockholders and Board of Directors and corporate procedures haven't changed. They've just added a new word to their corporate vocabulary, and for them, it means 'business as usual'. I really dislike seeing a great word like "sustainable" misused like that. Pass it on" That's what i know to do: publicize their hypocrisy. Do you have any other suggestions?

George Works
11/11/2009 8:31:06 AM

I have difficulty believing that in the next 40 years the world population will increase by 50% and everyone will have a higher standard of living than we do today. In America we can't even pay our current bills any more, much less generate the capital to invest in growth. Sustainability means no growth. We have a long way to go to get there.

Paul Cochran
9/11/2009 11:02:24 PM

I would just like to point out that Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) products are considered to be truely sustainable, and are audited yearly to make sure they comply to the standards for certification.

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