Got Sustainability?

Most people understand the general concept of environmentalism and how it applies to the world around them. Lately, the recurring meme in the public consciousness revolves around “sustainability.” The question on a lot of people’s minds is, “what exactly does this mean?” Here’s a quick primer which I think will help.

The concept of sustainable agriculture grew out of the early organic movement and became fine-tuned during the late 1980s. The first use of the term was coined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987 which stated: “sustainability is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In 1989, the American Agronomy Society adopted the following definition for sustainable agriculture: "A sustainable agriculture is one that, over the long term, enhances environmental quality and the resource base on which agriculture depends; provides for basic human food and fiber needs; is economically viable; and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

In a nutshell, sustainability is an activity that can be carried out (or sustained) successfully over a long period of time with minimal impact on the surrounding society and environment. Nice, right? It's a way of life and a pathway to long-term success both for us and our environment.  In essence, we try to stop fouling our own nest.

Three main points - sustainable agriculture utilizes practices that are ecologically sensitive, socially supportive and economically viable. The types of practices employed are dependent on the crops grown and on the place in which they are grown. Sustainable agriculture actually transcends both organics and the occult philosophy of biodynamics, as it understands that farms and people don’t operate in a vacuum. It's practical and research-based – not a government program or a recipe developed in a far off time and place. It’s founded on a solid scientific approach to the complexities and challenges of agriculture that encourages us to care about our environment, our neighbors and our crops using a system of localized “best practices.” These practices typically include organic materials and concepts but as is often the case with wine grapes, require growers to manage outside of organic dogma to be truly sustainable. For example, organic viticulture presently depends on the use of copper-based fungicides to control downy mildew - one of the most serious diseases of wine grapes. It is the belief of many in the scientific community that many synthetic materials are actually safer and break down in the soil more quickly than this heavy metal (and organic) pesticide. Unfortunately, “synthetic” compounds cannot be considered “organic.” Go figure. But following sustainable agricultural practices is not just about insect and disease control. It's also about managing small farms in a way that can be sustained successfully over a long period of time in the community they're situated in. That’s exactly what the local wine industry does.

Examples of unsustainable agriculture from the past include some of Long Island's duck and potato farms—both which contributed heavily to water pollution in the region. Over the years we’ve seen the results of large-scale organic vegetable operations that sold produce infected with E. coli and made people ill and took the lives of others. Even though these operations were certified organic, they were, to say the least, not sustainable.

Alice Wise, the Grape Research Program Leader at the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead, NY,  has worked on the issue of sustainability for Long Island vineyards for many years. She is one of leaders in writing the sustainable guidelines for New York State called VineBalance. Alice states that the VineBalance program is a set of self-assessment guidelines that encompasses all aspects of farm management. “Growers rate their practices in areas such as nutrient management, vineyard management and pest management,” said Alice. “Based on their results, growers can devise strategies for practices that need improvement. The goal is to not impose economic hardship or unreasonable expectations, but to work with growers in a creative and helpful manner to address the issues and challenges of grape growing.” A movement is currently underway to create an official sustainable designation for participating NY wineries and would include third party verification – something that has been missing from sustainable programs in the past. You can read more about VineBalance by visiting their website at

What does this have to do with Long Island wine? Lots. Long Island is all about sustainable wine growing. The concept is in full force here on the East End where the producers are small, environmentally minded and making handcrafted wines. Wine itself is a healthy beverage (in moderation) and on Long Island, production is at an artisanal level - limited to small batches that require little or no additives and sincerely represent our terroir. Vineyards are a long-term investment which preserve farmland and reduce soil depletion and erosion due to minimum tillage. Much of what is removed from the fields—prunings and processed fruit—are eventually returned to the soil. Long Island wine producers use a tremendous amount of hand labor for everything from pruning, leaf pulling, shoot positioning and harvesting, to providing employment opportunities for many in the local community.

Is sustainable agriculture a perfect system? Of course not, but it is the best overall strategy for long-term success. Examples of unsustainable winemaking still dominate the marketplace. Mass-produced, mechanized, large scale, industrial-style wines, manipulated with additives and made with a minimum of hand labor are transported thousands of miles to consumers. Talk about a carbon footprint! This is clearly not a sustainable model.

Sustainability starts at home—with all of us. Recycling, conserving energy and supporting your local farms are all sustainable actions we can take on our own. We need to be open to buying products that give equal emphasis to the social, environmental and economic benefits of paying a fair price for locally grown products. More and more, consumers are learning about the impact of their food and wine choices on their total quality of life. So next time you’re looking to pull a cork, remember all that goes into your local wine—and think about sustainability.

It all begins with you.