Sustainable agriculture

Sustainable is a relatively new word in the vocabulary of environmental-speak. The shift in thinking is subtle but important. When considering sustainable agriculture, the benefits are obvious. Consumers are less interested in convenience and affordability and are looking for food that is healthy and locally grown. Marketers and suppliers of our food have begun to respond. But access to minimally processed and locally grown food remains limited.

With gasoline prices exceeding $3 a gallon, bringing food to market becomes extremely expensive. It makes sense to have farms close by for many reasons. But farmland near urban centers has been steadily losing ground to development.

Responding to the accelerating loss of farm land to urbanization in the 1970s, King County began the Farmland Preservation Program in 1979. The program sought to preserve farmland by purchasing and holding the rights to develop it. Since the 1980s, the county has acquired the development rights on 13,200 acres that are permanently protected. But the amount is less than one percent of the total land area of King County.

The county program is voluntary. In selling the development rights to their property, the land is less valuable to owners who wish to sell. Obviously a new approach is needed.

The key to sustainable agriculture is making it attractive for both farmers and consumers. Economists and agricultural experts from Washington State University have been tracking and encouraging the growing trend toward organic farming. In its call for proposals on emerging research issues for 2008, the university is specifically looking for topics regarding sustainable food and agricultural production systems rather than studies on individual crops. A research-based approach toward sustainable agriculture is a positive move.

Only the wealthy and the comfortable can think about being environmentally correct. Many here and around the world do not have the luxury to worry about the environment and where their food comes from. But all will benefit if we champion the trend toward sustainable agriculture.

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