The most over-used and misused word in the English language currently is 'sustainable'. Although everybody uses it, there is no agreement as to what it means.
A manager might suggest that maintaining the current business course is not sustainable; a lawyer might argue a particular case is not sustainable; an athlete might declare a certain training program to be unsustainable; and increasingly, the impact of an activity on the environment might be described as unsustainable. The only thing you can be sure of is that being unsustainable is not good.
It has long been green dogma that modern agriculture is not sustainable. Terms such as monoculture, factory farming and industrial agriculture are used in a derogatory sense to reinforce that view. Plenty of people, either in a spirit of compromise or because they don't know any better, go along with the suggestion that agriculture should be "more sustainable", the assumption being that it isn't now.
My preferred definition of the word comes from former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who said, "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
Based on that definition, modern agriculture is not only sustainable now, but more sustainable than it has ever been.
Here in Australia we are often told that anything done by humans to change the environment is evidence in itself of unsustainability. The key assumption behind the term "wilderness" is the absence of human impact, or at least of white Europeans.
That thinking is not so common outside the country. In Ireland recently, a farm owner told me there was evidence of human settlement in the area going back five thousand years. He also said that his farm, which has been in the family for generations, could run 20 cows in the 1920s, 50 in the 1950s, 100 at the turn of the century and was now up to 120. He expects it to be running 150 within a decade.
Allowing for a bit of rounding, it is pretty obvious the farm has not only been capable of providing for its past and current owners, but will continue to do so for future generations (in this case the farmer's children) as well. In other words, it has long been sustainable and is sustainable now.
What's more, it is the use of modern technology, so despised by the green dogmatists, that makes this possible. Vaccines (some the product of genetic engineering) and chemicals help keep the cattle healthy. Pasture management using hybrid seeds and chemical fertiliser means there is enough food for the cattle. High tech nutritional supplements ensure they receive a balanced diet. Advanced artificial breeding technology means cows produce a calf each year and that the calves grow faster or produce more milk than ever before, and that there are more heifer than bull calves on dairy farms.
For agriculture to remain sustainable, it needs more of this. It will be modern technology, not a return to the last century or beyond, that ensures our soil and water are preserved. Genetically modified crops and pasture plants, for example, are not only fundamental to raising the nutritional value of pasture, but to combating desertification and drought.
What's needed in Australia is recognition that human impact on the environment is not only unavoidable but mostly highly positive. Moreover, the concept of virgin wilderness untouched by humans should be exposed for the lie that it is.
Large areas of the planet that today look like virgin forests were once farms. That includes much of the Amazon, which is actually forest regrowth growing in man-made "dark earths," which archaeologists believe were created by pre-Columbian farmers who added organic wastes and charcoal to improve nutrient supply and boost yields. It is a similar story in forests of West Africa and Borneo.
Nor is it just rainforests. The bison-grazed plains of North America were remade by Native Americans long before Europeans showed up. Many of the mist-shrouded treeless grasslands of the tropical Andes are the result of burning and grazing after locals cut down the natural forests centuries ago. Australia's 'old growth' temperate forests are all regrowth following repeated burning by aborigines over thousands of years.
Ecosystems have always been in a constant state of flux and humans have always left their mark. Nature is resilient and adaptable. In a thousand years the farms of today will be producing far more food and fibre they do now. That's sustainable.