“Sustainability” as more than a political buzzword

Agricultural scientists are looking to give meaning to the term “sustainability”

The term “sustainability” is much in vogue these days; so much so that its meaning is largely obscured by the verbiage of industrial greenwash and co-option by opportunistic politicians.

A group of scientists at the Technische Universität München (TUM) are attempting to define the term “sustainability” in a way that renders it quantifiable, and therefore useful to farmers, food manufacturers and consumers.

Striking a balance between the exploitation and renewal of natural resources is central to the idea of sustainability, but, when environmental concerns are uppermost in many people’s minds, the crux of the problem lies in its implementation.

TUM agricultural specialist Kurt-Jürgen Hülsbergen says that with a new indicator model he and his colleagues are now able to describe in detail agricultural enterprises as systems based on material and energy flows.

“We now have absolutely accurate methods for determining the emissions in air and water, as well as special tools for assessing the threat to soils from erosion and compaction,” says Hülsbergen. “In recent years, groundbreaking methods for calculating the climate balance as well as indicators for bio-diversity have emerged. These allow us to collect data on all significant environmental effects of agriculture.”

The model components developed by Hülsbergen’s team have been integrated into a single software application. Fed with data from field tests conducted at 80 farms across Germany, the model has so far generated a number of “virtual enterprises” which can be visualised in numerical and graphical form using charts and graphs.

Hülsbergen says that the model incorporates economic and social factors as well as ecology, and these include profit and investment rate, workload and remuneration level. The German Agricultural Society has established a certification system based on the research, and the food industry is also making use of the model. Two large-scale bakeries have reportedly used the model to assess the sustainability of their grain suppliers.