Thursday, October 17, 2013

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

by John BerryExtension Educator, Lehigh County

We hear quite a bit about the concepts of sustainability lately. Everything from fuel to employment to housing is referred to as needing to be sustainable.  As producers, have we 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 presents us with the paradox of starvation a midst plenty. One time we see starving children the next we see food being thrown away. Possible adverse environmental impacts of agriculture and increased awareness of foodborne illness also demand our attention. "Farm crisis's" 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% and 90% of the recent increases in food production is the result of conventional agriculture rather than greater acreage under cultivation. Not only have consumers come to expect abundant and inexpensive food they are getting this food with ever fewer acres being farmed.

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? With the contradictions and questions has 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, which has sparked much excitement and innovative thinking in the agricultural world.

Actually, sustainable agriculture was addressed by Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill. 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 
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.” 

Given this official definition, the idea of agricultural sustainability is not a new phenomenon. 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 and many overseas.

World population continues to grow. According to recent United Nations population projections, the world population will grow to 9.4 billion in 2050. 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, large food imports and debt burden, make long-term food security especially urgent.

Finally, the challenge of defining and dealing with concerns associated with today's food production system is inherently laden with controversy and emotion. It is unfortunate, but true, that some in the commercial agriculture community view sustainable agriculture as a personal criticism on conventional agriculture of which they are justifiably proud, and we have all benefited.

Material from the National Ag Library was used for this article.

1 comment:

Avantika Jalan said...


Your points on what is sustainable agriculture and how it has been something that existed inherently in the past is interesting. I am currently a masters student studying sustainable development, and also work with sustainable agriculture in India.
In the context of India, the conventional agriculture started in the 60's with the introduction of the Green revolution. While it was a great success in its initial years, the positive effects of this system has declined drastically in the last two decades, and Indian farmers have been suffering declining yields, and higher costs of production with each passing year.

According to Government of India (GOI) reports, input subsidies have resulted in overutilization of inputs. This overutilization has in turn led to soil degradation, soil nutrient imbalance, environmental harm, and groundwater depletion, all of which have caused decreased effectiveness of inputs. Since subsidies are available for the major nutrient fertilizers (nitrogen, potassium and phosphates), the farmers neglect the importance of other nutrient inputs. This misuse of subsidized fertilizers has degraded soil. This also results in declining plant health and immunity to pest, resulting in reduced crop yields over the years. Farmers need increased dosage of chemical fertilizers to achieve the original outputs (Scialabba). Not only are these effects detrimental to the natural resources and overall economic growth, they are causing poor farmers to go into increasing debts, which has led and an overall trend in rural populations migrating to urban centres, in search of better opportunities; and in extreme cases, leading to farmer suicides.
In recent years, the government has been pushing for organic inputs, and organic methods of farming through training and supporting private initiatives through incentives for organic fertilizer production. In future, keeping a balance between organic and chemical fertilizer production can help decrease the dependency on the chemical fertilizers, which would lead to less consumption, ultimately helping the government to bring the prices to a feasible levels, benefiting the government and the industry. This balanced approach would help address the social and environmental issues concerned with overuse of fertilizers as well, since organic farming includes self-sufficiency of manures and organic fertilizers on the farm, minimal agricultural run-off, and increase in biodiversity.

This pattern is probably the same in several developing countries, and even though there is the problem of increasing population, and concern for enough food availability for the burgeoning populations, I think sustainable agriculture. in the form of organic agriculture is still possible, as the problem with food availability largely lies in the food distribution and mismanagement of food that is being wasted in the world.