What Is Sustainable Agriculture? What Is Agricultural Sustainability?
What is Sustainable Agriculture?
As more and more people become concerned with our planet, more people are also thinking about sustainable agriculture. These two words might be a little confusing, so let’s take a closer look at them individually first.
According to freedictionary.com sustainable is defined as “capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage”; and agriculture means “the science, art, or occupation concerned with cultivating land, raising crops, and feeding, breeding, and raising livestock; farming.”
Does combining the two together and coming up with the definition, “the science of farming and raising livestock while maintaining an ecological balance and without exhausting the natural resources”, truly describe sustainable agriculture? Many believe that it does.
Other Definitions for Sustainable Agriculture
Many definitions for sustainable agriculture exist, but the first to be adopted by the United States in 1989 stated, "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."
Then in 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the 1990 Farm Bill which defined the term sustainable agriculture to mean “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that over the long term will:
- Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
- Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends.
- Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
- Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
- Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
Even more recently, as consumer demands for sustainable agricultural products has increased, groups such as Protected Harvest and Food Alliance have stepped up to provide certification programs and measurement standards to clearly define a sustainable agricultural product.
Problems Sustainable Agriculture is Facing
At the end of World War II, agriculture had changed dramatically due to:
- New technology
- Increased use of chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides)
- Changing government policies that assisted production
Even though the above changes provided many positive results, other issues have arisen such as the failure of many family farms, topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, rising production costs, and poor living and working conditions for farm laborers. Another concern is that the output/input energy ratio to produce agricultural products using conventional modern farming techniques has been consistently declining since the 1940’s. And on top of that, fossil fuels are declining and energy prices are rising. There are major concerns because should this trend continue, we would no longer be sustainable. Once we are no longer able to sustain food production, people starve.
As the world’s population increases, less land is available for cultivation and more food is required to feed the increasing number of people. Because of this there is concern that the land will become depleted as more demands are placed upon it.
Strong Feelings Concerning the Concept of Sustainable Agriculture
As in many topics concerning our world, sustainable agriculture has created followers of different ilks who have contradictory views of the answer to the problem. Not only that, they all have very strong views on how to address the issue.
There are those who state their views concerning sustainable agriculture up front and feel that those who do not mention it are unconcerned about it.
Then there are those who do not mention it, yet are still concerned about it, assuming economic necessity prevents them from being totally concerned with the issue. And, still others who do not mention it but contend it is an assumed goal although unstated. In fact, the latter two examples often feel that sustainable agriculture is increasing the productivity whatever the cost. There is a problem with this, however.
Sustainable Agriculture Must be Ecologically Balanced
There is increasing evidence that chemicals which are often used to increase productivity also have caused increasing problems in the ecological realm. Remember our definition, “… while maintaining an ecological balance …”
So we have the proponents of “sustainable agriculture” butting heads, not really able to agree on what “sustainable agriculture” really means. There are those who believe that using our limited nonrenewable resources as little as possible, yet getting the ultimate return from their usage by taking advantage of the biological cycles that can be found in nature, is the best route to take. Then there are those who are concerned only with “sustained production”, whatever the cost financially or ecologically. These definitions of sustainable agriculture are polar opposites, yet they both agree that sustainability is important. They just cannot agree on a means to the end.
What Do They Agree About?
With these two different views of sustainability, reaching an agreement will not be easy or simple. But if we look at three specific issues – what is to be sustained, for whom and for how long – most, if not all, agree – agriculture (what) is to be sustained for everyone (who) forever (how long), this generation and all generations to come. It is easy to agree on these three things.
Proving that one of these theories, or views, is better than the other could “take forever”, and by then it would be too late to point fingers and say, “See, I told you so.” So, we have to look at the logic of things. Advocates on both sides are beginning to agree: A sustainable agriculture must have the following three components:
- Ecologically sound
- Economically viable
- Socially responsible
Without working on agricultural sustainability, and considering ecological issues, we run an almost unavoidable risk of destroying agricultural productivity, and subsequently, human life on earth. Are we really willing to take that risk? Understandably and fortunately most everyone agrees that a plan must be ecologically sound.
Does Economic Viability Impact Social Responsibility?
Although, not everyone agrees that sustainable agriculture must also be economically viable and socially responsible, many farmers have been convinced to adopt ecologically viable solutions in the interest of receiving economic incentives. These financial incentives have allowed and aided many farmers to meet their short term interests and financial obligations while at the same time meeting the long term needs of society.
Although it would be noble for the farmer to make these changes without an economic incentive, it would be an unreasonable request. How many of you are willing to make a business decision that would cause you and your families to go broke and lose everything you had in the long term interest of society?
These economic incentives intended to benefit the long term interest of society do not just fall from the sky. They must be paid for. The society they benefit must pay for them, either by paying higher prices for agricultural products or by paying higher taxes. It is easy to see through this example that economic viability does impact social responsibility, and social responsibility impacts economic viability.
Sustained Agriculture as a Reality?
With all this in mind, sustained agriculture must meet our current needs without impeding the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
There are still many things to be worked out between the various groups who cannot even agree on the definition of sustained agriculture, much less how to implement it. It does, however, seem imperative that all approaches to agricultural sustainability must pass a three-question test: Is it ecologically sound? Is it economically viable? And, is it socially responsible? If the idea presented does not address each of these issues positively, another idea must be pursued in order for agricultural sustainability to become a reality.
Using this three-question test, a farm that was only concerned with the economics of the here and now, being unconcerned with ecological soundness, would not be considered sustainable in the long run. Along these same lines, a farm that was only concerned with making the correct ecological decisions would soon be a farm owned by someone else.
Although the idea of sustainable agriculture is evolving, and all approaches and ideas that are utilized will take time to succeed or fail, at least by asking the right questions, we are a whole lot closer to finding the right answer.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Cindy Murdoch