The future will bring us many exciting surprises: flying cars, intelligent machines, perhaps even nuclear fusion, to provide us with the kind of clean energy our planet so desperately needs. But one thing won’t change – people will still have to eat. As the human population grows, so does our demand for resources and impact on the environment. All of our farms and other operations must gradually switch to sustainable practices, but before this can happen, we must find a suitable definition for sustainability. The current legal definition of sustainable agriculture, from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is still vague. For instance, how are we to know if a farm is making “the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources” or whether it “enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole?”  This vagueness has caused currently sustainable operations to go unrecognized, so we remain unable to differentiate environmental activists from environment exploiters.
We do know, however, that sustainable farming must rely only on renewable resources, and the facility must also be at least carbon-neutral and cannot harm other ecosystems, for example, by inadvertently releasing invasive species or causing pollution of any kind: noise pollution, thermal pollution, chemical pollution (especially chemical fertilizers and pesticides). A less obvious guideline is that the operation must be profitable. Otherwise, it won’t be able to sustain itself, much less the environment. Why highlight these particular guidelines? If they are implemented by every farm and company on the planet, we should then be able to feed and sustain the human population until the Sun goes out. That is the mark of true sustainability.
Locally, in Northern California, I’ve discovered an industry that could serve as a model of sustainability going forward: shellfish farming. My recent visit to the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company farm in Drake’s Estero revealed a near-perfect example of sustainable farming. At Drake’s Bay, the oyster growing process is as clean and simple as it gets. Oyster veligers (larvae) are shipped from a supplier in Washington and enter a warm water tank. Over a few weeks, the veligers will attach to the ceramic rods inserted in the tank as a substrate; they are “fooled” into treating the rods as another oyster’s shell. The temperature is then carefully adjusted until it matches that of the bay’s water. In addition, the oysters must be sorted by size to prevent them from competing with each other for food or space. Another method seeds oysters on oyster shells reused from the previous year’s harvest. Those shells have a hole punched through them with a tap of a mallet and are strung up on racks. After two years growing in the bay and sifting particles from the water, the oysters are pried free, ready to be sold and enjoyed.
Figure 1: Outdoor breeding tanks used by DBOC.
Unfortunately, the farm has recently come under attack, as the National Park Service wishes to make the Estero into a wildlife preserve. Moreover, several environmentalist groups have accused the company of disrupting the ecosystem around it by releasing garbage into the bay and harming eelgrass patches with motorboat propellers. According to the National Research Council, “The activities of the oyster culturists can disturb wildlife such as harbor seals, which are of particular importance because they use the Estero for resting, mating, pupping, suckling, molting, foraging, and sheltering from oceanic predators” . However, this seemed inconsistent with Drake’s Bay’s efforts to conserve the surrounding environment, since every week, the beaches are patrolled for washed-up garbage, and the oyster shells that aren’t used for seeding are donated to native species restoration projects, such as that of the Western Snowy Plover: a threatened native shorebird that uses shells for nesting.
More importantly, Dr. Corey Goodman, a former biology professor at Stanford, determined that the National Research Council had not told the whole truth about Drake’s Bay, and was guilty of scientific misconduct in their study. To support Drake’s Bay, he wrote a letter to the White House OTSP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) that highlighted the non-scientific procedures that were used to smear the farm’s reputation. Those blunders included somehow transforming a claim that there was “no evidence of disturbance” of harbor seals into one of “moderate to adverse impact.” In addition, Goodman pointed out that “the NPS argued that their weak correlation, although scientifically challenged based upon an independent analysis of NPS data, was independently verified by further analysis by the Marine Mammal Commission (the 2011 MMC Report) which found that the NPS data, although “scant” and “stretched to the limit,” appeared to provide “some support” for the NPS correlation” . He goes on to indicate that although the MMC eventually acknowledged they had made mistakes, and formally withdrew their flawed results, the NPS deliberately chose to ignore that reversal.
Unfortunately, Drake’s Bay lost its case last November, but is appealing to a higher court. Because Drake’s Bay Oyster Company has not been recognized as a sustainable farm due to the vagueness of current general guidelines, it was easier for a misinformed environmentalist group to attack them. There’s a real possibility that the century-old practice of oyster farming in Drake’s Bay will end, along with the chance that any sustainable farm in an inconvenient location could remain, no matter its benefit to the local community.
Luckily, we have some idea how sustainability should be defined – or perhaps not defined. There is certainly a long list of practices to avoid; a perfect example is commercial cattle farming. Commercial operations rely on cheaper grains as feed, especially corn, and since cows are not adapted to such a diet, they require antibiotics, as well as additional protein due to the low content in corn – often in the form of byproducts from the slaughterhouse. Furthermore, cows inherently contribute to air pollution by releasing methane from their digestive processes. But there is hope in sight for the industry; emissions can be reduced by improving cattle diets, and some scientists have noticed that adding garlic to the cows’ diets will reduce methane emissions, although that won’t necessarily improve the smell. Other ingredients such as mangoes, barley, and citrus have also been shown to have positive effects .
Another way farms can achieve sustainability is by emulating the inherent stability of a diverse ecosystem by farming several species. For example, nutrient levels in a field can be maintained by crop rotation, in which different crops use up certain nutrients while the others replenish. Animals, too, can be used as literal weed-eaters; sheep and goats are a great asset in areas invaded by the introduced Asian species, kudzu vine .
In order to sustain our growing population on a planet with increasingly limited space, we must encourage companies to follow these sustainability standards, and define them more strictly. If we are to pull this feat off, all farms, factories, and companies must cooperate to preserve the one atmosphere and one planet we share. The first step towards this goal is to create a set of science-based, enforceable guidelines on how to be sustainable, and to reward those who follow them.
1. Legal Definition of Sustainable Agriculture: U.S. Code Title 7, Section 3103
2. Goodman, Corey S. “Based on Recommendations from Federal Agencies and Officials, Request that OTSP investigate Allegations of Scientific Misconduct involving The • National Park Service (NPS), • U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and • Marine Mammal Commission (MMC). The 2011 MMC and 2012 USGS Reports Intentionally, Knowingly, or Recklessly Misrepresented Data and Analyses, and Were Further Misrepresented in the 2012 NPS Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Oyster Farm Permit at Drakes Estero.” Letter to John Holdren. 4 Mar. 2013. MS. West Marin, California.
3. Peterson, Charles H et al. Committee on Best Practices for Shellfish Mariculture and the Effects of Commercial Activities in Drake’s Estero, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, California. Rep. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 2009. Print.
4. Bettenhausen, Craig. “Reducing Cattle Methane Emissions.” Cen.acs.org. American Chemical Society, 17 June 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
5. Knox, Brian, Richard Garden, and Shannon Garden. “Eco-Goats : Got Invasives? Get Goats!” Eco-Goats: Got Invasives? Get Goats! Eco Goats, 2009. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Figure 2: Oyster bags (most farming is done by the French method instead).