[ header = Some history ]

Brief history

The goal of achieving a sustainable planet, one that will accommodate the basic needs of its present inhabitants while preserving the resources that will enable future generations to flourish, has gained increasing acceptance. Although certainly not mainstream at this point, sustainable agriculture is now being addressed by the agricultural community in significant ways. The mid- to late-nineties have seen:
  • Acceptance of Biodiversity and Climate Change Conventions as international law, ratified by over 120 countries (1992-1999)
  • Establishment of the U.S. President's Council on Sustainable Development and its Task Force on Sustainable Agriculture (1993)
  • Presentation for comment and unprecedented consumer response to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Proposed Standards for Organic Food Production (1997-1998)
  • Enactment of the U.S. Food Quality Protection Act (1997)
  • Celebration of 10 successful years of USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program (1998)
In 1996, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Daniel Glickman issued a Memorandum on USDA sustainable agriculture policy. It stated, "USDA is committed to working toward the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of diverse food, fiber, agriculture, forest, and range systems. USDA will balance goals of improved production and profitability, stewardship of the natural resource base and ecological systems, and enhancement of the vitality of rural communities. USDA will integrate these goals into its policies and programs, particularly through interagency collaboration, partnerships and outreach." [Secretary’s Memorandum 9500-6: Sustainable Development (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of the Secretary, Sept. 13, 1996)]

If advocating the need for a sustainable agriculture has become universal, agreement as to what is required to achieve it has not. As more parties sign on to the sustainable agriculture effort, perceptions about what defines sustainability in agriculture have multiplied. This paper strives to illustrate the commonality and some of the controversy that defining such a goal entails, and it includes brief descriptions of the methodologies and practices currently associated with sustainable agriculture.

The author wishes to acknowledge the special contributions to this paper made by Jayne McLean and Jane Potter Gates, former Coordinators of the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC); Bill Thomas, its present Coordinator; Andy Clark, Coordinator of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN); and Kirsten Saylor, SAN Program Assistant. Special thanks go to Rebecca Thompson for proofreading and HTML conversion.

MNN Public Information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture 

[ header = The basics ]

The basics

Some terms defy definition. "Sustainable agriculture" has become one of them. In such a quickly changing world, can anything be sustainable? What do we want to sustain? How can we implement such a nebulous goal? Is it too late? With the contradictions and questions have come a hard look at our present food production system and thoughtful evaluations of its future. If nothing else, the term "sustainable agriculture" has provided "talking points," a sense of direction, and an urgency, that has sparked much excitement and innovative thinking in the agricultural world.

The word "sustain," from the Latin sustinere (sus-, from below and tenere, to hold), to keep in existence or maintain, implies long-term support or permanence. As it pertains to agriculture, sustainable describes farming systems that are "capable of maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems... must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound." [John Ikerd, as quoted by Richard Duesterhaus in "Sustainability’s Promise," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (Jan.-Feb. 1990) 45(1): p.4. NAL Call # 56.8 J822]

"Sustainable agriculture" was addressed by Congress in the 1990 "Farm Bill" [Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603 (Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1990) NAL Call # KF1692.A31 1990]. Under that law, "the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • 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; and
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

MNN Public Information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture  

[ header = Dig deeper ]

Dig deeper

How have we come to reconsider our food and fiber production in terms of sustainability? What are the ecological, economic, social and philosophical issues that sustainable agriculture addresses?

The long-term viability of our current food production system is being questioned for many reasons. The news media regularly present us with the paradox of starvation amidst plenty—including pictures of hungry children juxtaposed with supermarket ads. Possible adverse environmental impacts of agriculture and increased incidence of foodborne illness also demand our attention. "Farm crises" seem to recur with regularity.

The prevailing agricultural system, variously called "conventional farming," "modern agriculture," or "industrial farming" has delivered tremendous gains in productivity and efficiency. Food production worldwide has risen in the past 50 years; the World Bank estimates that between 70 percent and 90 percent of the recent increases in food production are the result of conventional agriculture rather than greater acreage under cultivation. U.S. consumers have come to expect abundant and inexpensive food.

Conventional farming systems vary from farm to farm and from country to country. However, they share many characteristics: rapid technological innovation; large capital investments in order to apply production and management technology; large-scale farms; single crops/row crops grown continuously over many seasons; uniform high-yield hybrid crops; extensive use of pesticides, fertilizers, and external energy inputs; high labor efficiency; and dependency on agribusiness. In the case of livestock, most production comes from confined, concentrated systems.

Philosophical underpinnings of industrial agriculture include assumptions that "a) nature is a competitor to be overcome; b) progress requires unending evolution of larger farms and depopulation of farm communities; c) progress is measured primarily by increased material consumption; d) efficiency is measured by looking at the bottom line; and e) science is an unbiased enterprise driven by natural forces to produce social good." [Karl N. Stauber et al., "The Promise of Sustainable Agriculture," in Planting the Future: Developing an Agriculture that Sustains Land and Community, Elizabeth Ann R. Bird, Gordon L. Bultena, and John C. Gardner, editors (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995), p.13. NAL Call # S441 P58 1995]

Significant negative consequences have come with the bounty associated with industrial farming. Concerns about contemporary agriculture are presented below. They are drawn from the resources compiled at the end of this chapter. While considering these concerns, keep the following in mind: a) interactions between farming systems and soil, water, biota, and atmosphere are complex—we have much to learn about their dynamics and long term impacts; b) most environmental problems are intertwined with economic, social, and political forces external to agriculture; c) some problems are global in scope while others are experienced only locally; d) many of these problems are being addressed through conventional, as well as alternative, agricultural channels; e) the list is not complete; and f) no order of importance is intended.

MNN Public Information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture  

[ header = Ecological concerns ]

Ecological concerns

Agriculture profoundly affects many ecological systems. Negative effects of current practices include the following:

  • Decline in soil productivity can be due to wind and water erosion of exposed topsoil; soil compaction; loss of soil organic matter, water holding capacity, and biological activity; and salinization of soils and irrigation water in irrigated farming areas. Desertification due to overgrazing is a growing problem, especially in parts of Africa.
  • Agriculture is the largest single non-point source of water pollutants including sediments, salts, fertilizers (nitrates and phosphorus), pesticides, and manures. Pesticides from every chemical class have been detected in groundwater and are commonly found in groundwater beneath agricultural areas; they are widespread in the nation’s surface waters. Eutrophication and "dead zones" due to nutrient runoff affect many rivers, lakes, and oceans. Reduced water quality impacts agricultural production, drinking water supplies, and fishery production.
  • Water scarcity in many places is due to overuse of surface and ground water for irrigation with little concern for the natural cycle that maintains stable water availability.
  •  Other environmental ills include over 400 insects and mite pests and more than 70 fungal pathogens that have become resistant to one or more pesticides; stresses on pollinator and other beneficial species through pesticide use; loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat; and reduced genetic diversity due to reliance on genetic uniformity in most crops and livestock breeds.
  •  Agriculture's link to global climate change is just beginning to be appreciated. Destruction of tropical forests and other native vegetation for agricultural production has a role in elevated levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Recent studies have found that soils may be sources or sinks for greenhouse gases.

MNN Public Information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture  

[ header = Economic and social concerns ]

Economic and social concerns

Economic and social problems associated with agriculture can not be separated from external economic and social pressures. As barriers to a sustainable and equitable food supply system, however, the problems may be described in the following way:

  • Economically, the U.S. agricultural sector includes a history of increasingly large federal expenditures and corresponding government involvement in planting and investment decisions; widening disparity among farmer incomes; and escalating concentration of agribusiness—industries involved with manufacture, processing, and distribution of farm products—into fewer and fewer hands. Market competition is limited. Farmers have little control over farm prices, and they continue to receive a smaller and smaller portion of consumer dollars spent on agricultural products.
  • Economic pressures have led to a tremendous loss of farms, particularly small farms, and farmers during the past few decades—more than 155,000 farms were lost from 1987 to 1997. This contributes to the disintegration of rural communities and localized marketing systems. Economically, it is very difficult for potential farmers to enter the business today. Productive farmland also has been pressured by urban and suburban sprawl—since 1970, over 30 million acres have been lost to development.
Impacts on Human Health

Potential health hazards are tied to sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal production, and pesticide and nitrate contamination of water and food. Farm workers are poisoned in fields, toxic residues are found on foods, and certain human and animal diseases have developed resistance to currently used antibiotics.

MNN Public Information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture  

[ header = Philosophical considerations ]

Philosophical considerations

Historically, farming played an important role in our development and identity as a nation. From strongly agrarian roots, we have evolved into a culture with few farmers. Less than two percent of Americans now produce food for all U.S. citizens. Can sustainable and equitable food production be established when most consumers have so little connection to the natural processes that produce their food? What intrinsically American values have changed and will change with the decline of rural life and farmland ownership?

World population continues to grow. According to recent United Nations population projections, the world population will grow from 5.7 billion in 1995 to 9.4 billion in 2050, 10.4 billion in 2100, and 10.8 billion by 2150, and will stabilize at slightly under 11 billion around 2200. The rate of population increase is especially high in many developing countries. In these countries, the population factor, combined with rapid industrialization, poverty, political instability, and large food imports and debt burden, make long-term food security especially urgent.

Finally, the challenge of defining and dealing with the problems associated with today's food production system is inherently laden with controversy and emotion. "It is unfortunate, but true, that many in the agriculture community view sustainable agriculture as a personal criticism, or an attack, on conventional agriculture of which they are justifiably proud. ‹I guess that the main thing people get defensive about when you say sustainable,’ explained one agent, ‘is that it implies that what they’ve been doing is not sustainable. And that’s the biggest issue.’" [Judy Green, "Sustainable Agriculture: Why Green Ideas Raise a Red Flag," Farming Alternatives Newsletter (Cornell) (Summer 1993). 

MNN Public Information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture