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Is “Sustainable Farming” that difficult?

By Murilo Quintiliano, Director

Sustainable farming has become a buzz word. There are so many people on so many platforms discussing it, with an infinite number of definitions and concepts that it is becoming too difficult for farmers to absorb. Don’t get me wrong, farmers are not “old fashioned”, “stubborn” and “against change” as some people still think - the real issue is that there are so many concepts to grasp and practices to adopt. Even as a farmer and animal scientist, dealing with farmers on a daily basis and having managed FAI Brazil for 13 years, I struggle to absorb all the standards, metrics and actions plans that are emerging in order to “be sustainable” - as citizens, media and influencers define it.

The most important job in the world

Waking up in the morning before sunrise (as farmers do), I feel a responsibility to do what I believe is one of the most important jobs in world - to support our families and communities by producing quality food, ultimately supporting the survival of mankind. There is a strange and growing feeling amongst farmers - thanks to the information era in which we are living - that everyone else knows how to farm better than we do. Everybody else has answers, and everyone else is doing it perfectly! Of course, this is a fallacy. Yes, there is more information and knowledge than ever before, and the access to it has never been so fast and so easy - but in reality, few people are able and prepared to transition to a completely new way of farming.

Simple measurements

To move towards sustainability, start with simple, small steps, and concrete actions, with a simple plan. My suggestion is to ask yourself: “Do I know how many steel nails I have used on the farm this week?”. You are now thinking, “How this could be relevant for sustainable farming?” But if you know the answer to this, you are probably aware of all the metrics on your farm. You probably know how many livestock you have, what their average weight is, how much forage you produced last year, how many kilograms of fertilizers you have used, how much diesel your tractors are consuming and how many hours per day you and your team worked. Let’s pay attention, measure and reduce “leakages”. If you can measure it, you can control it, as our most honored Professor Grandin always says.

As an example, I have been assisting a beef cattle farmer in Brazil since March 2020, who had immense water problems on his farm last year. Our discussions started right away on climate change, deforestation, soil degradation and illegal water use. Of course these are very important discussions, and must be on everybody’s agenda, but in reality, the problem was that his water piping was so old, that much water on the farm was being wasted, increasing energy use and depleting water sources. It is all fixed now, fortunately, and now we discuss how to make his farm even better.

A planned approach

Do not spend your energy trying to “be sustainable” - that is impossible with moving goals. We can only “be on a sustainable journey” - a path that you decide to walk along, involving plans, actions and importantly routines that can lead to desired outcomes, closer to a positive balance between environment, ethics and the economics in our farming operations. In moving from an emphasis on ‘sustainable’ to a focus on ‘regenerative’, FAI has started to look beyond the actions that might sustain us and our environment in the status quo. We’re now aiming to build higher welfare, more equitable and more biodiverse food systems than those we inherited – a journey of continuous improvement.

So I ask you as a farmer - next morning at sunrise, forget a little bit about the broad challenges of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, land use and waste management. Instead try to focus on the things that are tangible and under your control today. Define feasible and simple plans to make things better every day, collect information, show it to others and prepare yourself for bigger steps. If you define the right path, the path of sustainability, you will be on an incredible and rewarding journey of daily improvement, for people, animals, environment - and specially, your pocket.

Murilo Quintiliano is an FAI Director based on FAI’s farm in Brazil, where he develops FAI’s global approach to agriculture for climate and food security and supports partner farms on their sustainability journey. With the FAI Brazil team, he manages 1,000 beef cattle, 400 sheep and our innovative Tilapia Welfare Project.