Economic Sustainability vs. Environmental Sustainability
Economic Sustainability vs. Environmental Sustainability

Economic Sustainability vs. Environmental Sustainability

Over the past few years, ‘environmental sustainability’ has become commonplace within society. This is a term that frequently lacks definition as it is so widely used, including by governments, media, retailers and environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs). We use the term in our research and our blogs where we demonstrate with evidence how environmental sustainability has changed, either for better or worse. However, we see how the term has been over-used and its use often lacks meaning or value.

Frequently, the term ‘environmental sustainability’ is applied to methods, processes and technologies that are used to produce food. As a commonplace term, the European Union (EU) is using its broadness and lack of definition to their advantage in their EU Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy. The F2F Strategy advocates for significant and negative changes in the production of food, all in the name of improved ‘environmental sustainability’. The EU F2F strategy is trading economics for what they deem will be environmental sustainability. Often, governments, media and ENGOs fail to appreciate that without economic sustainability there will be no environmental sustainability when it comes to the production of food.


Economic Sustainability Drives Environmental Sustainability

Farming and the production of food is a business. Farms are not hobbies or lifestyle choices. Owning and operating a farm is a multi-million dollar business, where profitability is as important as it is for any other business within the economy. Many of the proposed environmental sustainability legislation changes suggested by the EU would result in farmers being less profitable. A common perspective in society is that farmers would gladly accept lower profits to provide environmental benefits all of society. However, which business owner would gladly accept lowering profits? Would you want to gladly lower your salary? No, who would? EU farmers are growing increasingly frustrated with the F2F, as the Strategy proposed to negatively impact EU farmer profitability and protests across the EU have been held in cities such as Berlin, Paris, Rome and more.

Because society is pushing for environmental sustainability, regulations are often targeted directly at farmers, rather than others in the industry or consumers. For example, the Canadian government’s announcement of a mandatory nitrogen fertilizer greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction target of 30%, was targeted directly at farmers. It was quickly and correctly pointed out by both the fertilizer and agriculture industry that the only way this would be possible would be to use less fertilizer than is currently being used. It was additionally estimated that if this reduction was enacted, farmers would lose $48 billion in farm revenue between 2023 and 2030. Fertilizer is used to help crops grow, so a reduction in its use would lower food production in Canada. If a farm produces less food from having to reduce fertilizer, then they have lower sales and most likely, lower profits. Many in government, media and society saw no issue with this, not realizing that lower yields result in higher food prices.

Canadian farms are already sustainable producers of food. This has been achieved by the adoption of innovative products and technologies such as variable rate input application equipment and genetically modified crops. The decision to adopt innovative products and technologies is predominantly an economic one. This has been made without dictating policy or legislation, which has also had a positive impact in improving sustainable practices on farms.


Rationality of Economic Sustainability

No one in society would willingly take a cut in their income. Yet, this is what advocating for environmental policies that would reduce farm income is asking farmers to do. Farmers are willing to do their part to mitigate the impacts of climate change, but not if the policy dictates lower farm income.

Many involved in discussions on environmental sustainability need to acknowledge the sustainability advances already achieved by Canadian farmers due to gains in economic sustainability. Farmers can, and will, adopt more environmentally sustainable practices, but not at a cost to the economic health of their family or business. Those advocating for greater environmental sustainability need to heed this fundamental aspect, as without economic sustainability, there will be no improvement in environmental sustainability.