Principles for Great Plains Sustainability
It is very difficult to evaluate the sustainability of policies and projects based solely on general definitions of sustainable development and sustainable agriculture. More details about how they are realized in a given scenario are required. In 1993, IISD organized two workshops for selected experts in order to develop a set of principles which would cultivate a better understanding of the issues pertaining to Great Plains, while bringing sustainability closer to a measurable state. These principles are classified into the categories of stewardship, economic viability and social concerns - the three pillars of sustainable development.
These principles have guided the development of criteria and key questions to assist in the creation of measurable indicators of progress on sustainable development in the Great Plains.
Our sojourn here is limited. During this period there exists both an individual and collective responsibility to sustain the environment for both our own and future generations. Economic and social activities should be undertaken in such a fashion as to maintain and preferably enhance the capacity of the resources used for the benefit of future generations as well as our own.
The need to maintain biological diversity should be further explored while strengthening essential ecological processes. Non-renewable resources must be used wisely. A balance must be maintained between the use of resource and the economic and social effects on society. The major renewable resource in agriculture, the soil, must be protected so that its inherent productivity is maintained.
Where renewable resources such as the soil have been damaged, rehabilitation must be attempted to the extent feasible. The aim of rehabilitation is to restore or preferably increase original productivity, recognizing that this may be possible only over the long term. It is recognized that lack of adequate care has contributed to soil degradation on the prairies. The destruction of habitat which has occurred must be mitigated. Where the quality of water has been impaired by inappropriate practices, the causes should be removed so that the original quality, insofar as possible, is restored.
In our society, certain production inputs and outputs are not priced in terms of their real value. Examples include the air we breathe and the carbon dioxide absorbed by plants. Furthermore, the by-products of production in terms of their environmental change or enhancement are not necessarily subject to a monetary penalty or premium. What is required is that the real costs of both presently considered "free goods" and "undervalued goods" be incorporated into total costs when determining the net returns of production. Such costing, for example, will include the value of any net loss or gain in soil nutrients as a result of crop production.
Research to enhance the development of technologies which contribute to the maintenance of environmental quality and economic growth must be supported. Such support should extend to provision of educational services which will further the research program while at the same time maintaining social and cultural values. Coincident with this should be maintenance of human health. Improvement of the efficiency of production is now an objective of the research but the development of research institutions and markets in order to capture the externalities associated with production is required. Means to ensure that the research results are effectively communicated to farmers also are necessary.
Production cannot be sustained unless it is economically viable. Such viability requires that the net returns from marketing are positive. Unless such returns are adequate within a region, producers cannot be expected to continue to utilize their available resources for this purpose. The net returns from production should enable an adequate standards of living to be maintained while at the same time being sufficient to continue to attract replacement operators.
Barriers to trade can create impediments to the achievement of sustainability. Consequently, trade liberalization is an important component of progress toward sustainable development. In addition, such liberalization leads to greater international efficiency in production. As a result, true comparative advantage should be an objective of trade policy. This implies recognition of the real costs of production and therefore the maintenance of environmental integrity. For example, exports of wheat should be made only where the real costs of production are less than the prices available in the world market. On the other hand, unsubsidized imports of sugar from developing countries should not be blocked by internal price support schemes. An open approach to trade is necessary. Such a stance requires a degree of international cooperation not yet experienced. Nonetheless, trade policy should support and augment the degree of cooperation achievable through international trade agreements.
Economic activity should ideally minimize social costs while maximizing social benefits. At the same time it should not detract from human health, cultural resources or the quality of land and water. Cultural and social diversity should be respected. In agriculture a balance must be struck between the size of production units consistent with technology and a social structure acceptable to all stakeholders including those providing the infrastructure.
Ecological interdependence exists among nations as there is no boundary to our environment. Stakeholders in the maintenance of the environment are therefore not necessarily local. How the local environment is treated ultimately impacts on other parts of the world and can be expected to haunt those guilty of its mistreatment. For example, excess use of fossil fuels with the attendant production of carbon dioxide and other contaminants, unless accompanied by appropriate means for their absorption, will impact unfavourably on the environments of other nations. There is a responsibility on the part of all nations to "think globally when acting locally". In agriculture, for example, cropping practices should be adopted which minimize the contaminants produced while providing "sinks" for those which are contaminating. There is a continuing need to merge environmental considerations with those of economics in decision making at the local and international levels in order to provide equitable solutions to problems. For agriculture, this implies provision of technology, where appropriate, to assist other nations in overcoming their problems. At the same time, social and cultural differences must be respected while attempting to improve the human condition. There remains a moral responsibility to ensure that developing nations have an adequate supply of food. This does not necessarily imply that they should be given food but rather that, they be enabled to produce their own supply if possible.