I was recently at a meeting where the terms “sustainable” and “organic” were used interchangeably. I found this interesting. Are they really synonymous? First we should define these terms. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, sustainable means:
1. capable of being sustained
2 a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods
As for organic, we need to target the definition to deal with food only (as there are other definitions not pertinent to our discussion here):
1. Of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides
So, could an organic food system be sustainable? Yes. Could it not be sustainable? Yes. Organic food systems are oriented toward non-depletion of resources and keeping the environment healthy. However, poor management could diminish resources. But, those are not the only resources in play. There is economic sustainability as well. If an Organic farm is not profitable then it is not sustainable.
Can a non-organic food system be sustainable? Yes. Could it not be sustainable? Again, yes. Conventional farming systems can also use methods that conserve resources. Thus using the terms “sustainable” and “organic” interchangeably is technically incorrect.
This is not a debate on whether or not organic is better than conventional. My thought today was to take a look at these two terms and make a distinction between them. Any type of farming system can be sustainable or unsustainable.