Sustainability is about to go out of fashion, and for fundamentally good reasons.
Fast becoming a bogus ethical term, “sustainability” is used by companies in their Corporate Social Responsibility propaganda (insurance policies against loss of social license to operate).
The industrial system that is the foundation of our economy, of continuous extraction without replenishment, is limited. Instead, we need to maintain the capital of the land and live off the income, but that requires investment in that capital: “You can’t run a linear system on a finite planet”.
Sustainability is not sufficient; it implies that what we have is intact. Rather than aiming to be less bad, in contrast, a regenerative model focuses on doing good.
Industrial agriculture mines the soil. Farmers once built the soil without external inputs, using manure, surplus organic matter and the power of an army of billions of bacteria. These bacteria are switched on as and when needed by plants. Their function is to transform nutrients in the soil into a form that plants can uptake. Fertilisers used in industrial agriculture are mostly derived from fossil fuels; they are chemical solutions, not part of the natural eco-system, and destroy the web of the soil and leach out in water.
Ruminants grazed and rotated on pastures is an example of a regenerative model. Such animals are important in the cycle of building organic matter and soil, sequestering carbon and regenerating the land. The increasing microbiology of the soil works on both the manure and vegetable organic matter that is continually regenerated as live-stock is moved around the farm. In this way, ruminants inoculate, fertilise, trample and graze the land which is then rested for a couple of months on rotation. The proportion of organic matter (carbon) in the soil increases and roots sink deeper into the substrate, increasing biodiversity of the soil and fungi. This network of organic matter in the soil holds more water – for one additional unit of organic matter, 8 additional units of water can be held. The virtuosity of this cycle is apparent.
Feed-lots, on the other hand, are abominations. Industrial meat production degrades the land to dust bowls, and animals are fattened up quickly on corn and fed water which is transported in. Tonnes of manure – which should be a resource – is managed as waste, producing methane, the dreaded green-house gas.
Meat is only unsustainable in an industrialised system of production, and why it gets a bad environmental rap. So, go meat-free? Yes, by all means go industrialized feed-lot meat free, but locally grown grass-fed meat without external inputs, actually improves the environment. Not all meat is equal, so beware the dictates of ignorant ideology, selective information and green-washed PR.
Be also sceptical of publicised Corporatized Sustainability Indexes, for their focus is less about the environment and more about the interests of competitive advantage and investor relations. The write-up about the Corporate Sustainability Assessment utilised by Dow Jones makes it clear that the environment is not the main objective: “The CSA helps companies to understand which sustainability factors are important from an investor’s perspective, and which in turn, are most likely to have an impact on the company’s financial performance. Thus, the CSA serves as a sustainability roadmap helping participating companies to prioritize corporate sustainability initiatives that are most likely to enhance the company’s competitiveness.” Not One Mention of the environment.
By utilising such corporatised risk-management roadmaps to measure environmental impact, companies outsource and pay lip-service to their true responsibilities in the local environment, putting faith in the precise industrial system that brought the environment to its knees.
The leaders in regenerative business models will not be about reducing their carbon footprint but about finding ways – such as the grass-grazed model of meat production – to sequester carbon: From carbon neutrality as a goal to a negative carbon footprint.