Appreciating sustainable development

By Frank A. Hilario

“Sustainable development is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while at the same time sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend. The desired result is a state of society where living conditions and resource use continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural system.”

Very complicated! There are mentions of the following: development goals, natural systems (plural), natural system (singular), natural resources, ecosystem services, resource use, and human needs.

We need to simplify.

First, some synonyms: sustainable has the following words having similar meanings: supportable, endurable, maintainable. The dictionary definition of “sustainable” is this: “Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment” (American Heritage Dictionary, AHD, AHD emphasizes “effect on the environment” – sorry, but that limits the term “sustainable development” to its effect on the environment. There are other effects.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” ( That is intelligent and clear, but it is not practical – simply because you cannot measure the future. And you cannot assume intelligently that what we know today is all that the future generations will know and not be able to add to the current store of knowledge.

Here is a very rich excerpt from the FAO (

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines sustainable development as “the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such sustainable development (in the agriculture, forestry, and fisheries sectors) conserves land, water, plant, and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technologically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable”.

The FAO is saying that the fields covered by sustainable development are three: agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. And the FAO is saying that there are four components to look for when you claim that an activity, project or program is designed to bring about sustainable development: (1) environmentally non-degrading; (2)technologically appropriate; (3) economically viable; and (4) socially acceptable.

The problem with Number 1 is that in agriculture, forestry or fisheries, every activity is potentially environmentally degrading, that is, destructive in either a minor or major manner. The problem with Number 2 is that it is already embedded or considered in Number 3 and Number 4 – meaning, what is technologically appropriate must prove to be economically viable and socially acceptable.

About the term “technologically appropriate” (TA) or “technically feasible” (TF) as a component of sustainable development – “technologically appropriate” means, “It can do what it’s supposed to do,” and “technically feasible” means “it can be done, or it can be used. But the concepts of TA and TF are already embedded in “economically viable.” You cannot simply say, “Technology X will bring about sustainable development.” X may be technologically appropriate or feasible, meaning that it works according to specifications, but that does not necessarily lead to sustainable development, which has much broader contexts and contents: economics, environment, and social.

So, there are actually only three components of sustainable development, in that an activity, project, program, or enterprise must eventually prove to be all these three:
(1) economically viable; (2) environmentally sound; and (3) socially acceptable.

Economically viable 

Economically viable means it provides income every time it is engaged in. When you do it, whether an activity or an enterprise, it gives you profit or income; when you repeat it any number of times, it will repeat to give you profit or income.

Illustrative Example: If rice farming is economically viable, why are millions of rice farmers still poor? You must look into the economics of it, into the costs & returns of rice growing. Farmers use expensive chemical fertilizers, a minimum of P10,000 per hectare (10 bags at P1,000), which is a lot of money – to make their farming viable, they have to learn to reduce costs, especially fertilizer cost.

Environmentally sound

Environmentally sound means when you engage in it, whether in an activity or in an enterprise, there is a minimum loss or damage to the surroundings or, at least, Mother Nature can bring back what has been lost over time (renewable).

Illustrative Example: What is environmentally unsound is that farmers spray insecticides to kill insects and fungicides to kill fungi that are proven to be enemies of the rice plants. However, spraying those pesticides results in the killing of both harmful and beneficial insects, and both harmful and beneficial organisms other than fungi. What is environmentally sound is that farmers practice crop rotation and multiple cropping, so they do not have to spray any chemical against any pest, because there are no insect infestations or disease infections.

Socially acceptable

Socially acceptable means that most people approve of it or, at the very least, do not object to it. To explain, here are two examples.

1. A genetically modified organism (GMO) like Bt corn, which contains genes of the bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), is designed to fight the corn borer by killing it once it attacks (feeds on) the corn. Bt corn is controversial, that is, acceptable to some, not acceptable to others.

2. Vermicompost, which is organic matter produced by vermins is acceptable. Vermins are worms (according to AHD), in this case earthworms. The earthworms literally eat the organic matter and what comes out as their waste is called vermicompost, which is superb organic fertilizer.

So, when you read the term sustainable development anywhere, whether it is applied to science or technology, applied in economics or education, unless the author is using the term in a very limited context (which happens, and which is wrong), whether it is the Philippine government or the United Nations using the term, it must mean not just one or any combination but all of the following, that whatever is being considered is:

(1) Economically viable, and (2) Environmentally sound, and (3) Socially acceptable.

No technology, no matter how advanced, can lead to sustainable development of a region, for instance, if it is merely (1) technically feasible, or merely (2) environmentally sound, or merely (3) socially acceptable; it must be a combination of the three components.

In the photograph, you see a small farm being cultivated by two men. There is corn growing; there are other crops growing, and they are still working on the soil. Small tools are appropriate here. Multiple crops give you a sustainable income anytime.

As a journalist, you cannot or should not debate with any advertisement of a product that makes any claim about “sustainability” – simply allow the product to show by results, or allow the company or group to prove their contention.

For instance, let us consider a product, from my fertile imagination: FertiliZest, a brand of organic fertilizer, which has the certification by the Organic Certification Center of the Philippines. To sell you the idea that the use of FertiliZest – slogan: “the fertilizer that gives zest to your soil, that gives zest to your crops” – will lead to sustainable development of your farm and therefore your family. I must show that the continued use of my fertilizer results in:

1. Continued earning of increased income (economically viable) – given your use of my fertilizer following the instructions on the bag that I have provided. You earn much, much more than you pay for my fertilizer.

2. continued repair of the environment (environmentally sound) – given your year-in and year-out farming, where what has been lost is slowly coming back, such as a soil that keeps on being rich or richer, and frogs coming back in population without you planting any tadpoles.

3. continued mention of farmers with off-and-on favorable writeups by journalists of my product (socially acceptable) – without my intellectual manipulation of their perceptions.

Personal: I want to emphasize that economically viable must also mean that the poor farmers can rise from their poverty and stay up there!

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s March 2019 issue. 

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