These days everyone is talking about sustainability. The term appears in corporate business strategies, university course descriptions, and political speeches, making it part of our everyday vocabulary.
The onslaught of information is overwhelming, with new videos, books, references, etc., appearing on an almost daily basis. When something is in such abundant supply, much of it tends to be worthless, making access to quality education on the subject more important than ever. Only then can we draw the right conclusions and avoid misunderstandings about what sustainability actually means.
Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the definition of sustainability. In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
According to this definition, the goal of sustainability is to prevent the exhaustion of available resources, because we have to protect the natural environment, and all people should have access to the same opportunities.
This is all well and good, but are we aware that many of these resources are limited? That we have to repair the damage done so far? That simply doing less harm to the planet isn’t enough? That what we actually have to do is start working with the planet if we want to ensure our continued existence?
I believe that all too often we forget that our survival is directly dependent on the services with which nature provides us. Without them, we would go extinct.
We can see this quite clearly in an example from our food chain that would also include winegrowing.
Currently most agricultural production focuses on highly productive practices, because the global population is increasing and consequently our food needs are too.
However, these systems are extractive. They are based on the indiscriminate use of resources and chemicals to obtain an agricultural product. This has a negative impact on the natural environment and the quality of the soils, which end up depleted and infertile.
Within this context, organic farming emerged as an agricultural model centred on maintaining natural resources, biodiversity, and soil fertility by reducing the use of chemicals. What it does not address, however, is a fundamental question: how do we restore the quality of deteriorated soils?
To achieve this, our food system cannot limit itself to doing less harm, but needs to actively improve and regenerate our environment. This is the goal of regenerative agriculture, a model which goes a step further and regenerates cropland soils continuously to maintain the services they provide. It is about collaborating with nature, not working against it.
What does it mean to have a positive impact?
The current imbalance between the planet’s resources and their unrestrained use is setting off alarms worldwide. The immediate response revolves around sustainable initiatives aimed at maintaining existing systems and reducing harm: improved waste management systems and material recycling, energy-saving strategies focused on practices that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels or more efficient production processes (working with the same system but optimizing the use of resources) rather than more effective practices that prevent the problem in the first place.
At this point, sustainability alone is not enough. We need to provide real solutions to global problems and consider systems and their viability in the long term – in other words, we must generate a positive impact with tangible results that contribute to the conservation and restoration of the environment.
To better understand the concept of “positive impact”, let’s examine the case of waste management.
Our current production systems use resources to produce products which, in the majority of cases, quickly lose their value and are discarded. This is a serious problem for our global economy, because every country has to set aside resources to manage, eliminate, and recycle this waste.
At present, we are primarily pursuing a solution focused on improving recycling techniques instead of analysing alternatives that would increase the value of the products themselves, thereby preventing them from becoming waste material in the first place. So, what is the real problem here? It is the way in which materials are produced and used.
Designing products to make them more durable and capable of being shared and reused would provide us with goods that are repairable and could easily be replaced or re-fabricated. In the end, this would allow us to tackle the main issue, namely the elimination of waste materials – because managing and disposing of waste contaminates and consumes natural resources.
Let’s take another example, this time from the wine and grape sector. The winemaking process generates a significant amount of organic residues. These residues mainly consist of materials that derive from what is known as biomass – in other words, the discarded parts of the grape itself: pomace, seeds, pulp and skins, stems, leaves, lees, and tartrates/bitartrates left over at the end of the winemaking process.
Biomass components constitute highly valuable biological nutrients, which can be composted and anaerobically digested, thereby reintroducing them into the biosphere.
When plants and other organisms have access to these nutrients, they begin to restore the soil. Over time, and taking advantage of the sun’s energy, these nutrients are absorbed back into nature.
For this to occur, wineries need to work on their internal practices to ensure the correct collection and transformation of organic matter under suitable temperature and humidity conditions.
Transforming discarded food resources into valuable products begins with the collection of organic materials. However, in many parts of the world, organic residues are collected inadequately or not at all, leading to contamination and lost opportunities.
All of us are still learning how to navigate this new reality, but we have to begin by not only reducing harm, but repairing the harm that has already been done – and this means working with nature, not against it.
Marta Juega, PhD.