Definitions of Sustainable agriculture

Definitions of Sustainable agriculture:

            National Geographic definition:

“Sustainable agriculture takes many forms, but at its core is a rejection of the conventional approach to food production developed during the 20th century. This conventional system, with its reliance on monoculture, mechanization, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, and government subsidies, has made food abundant and affordable. However, the ecological and social price has been steep: erosion; depleted and contaminated soil and water resources; loss of biodiversity; deforestation; labor abuses; and the decline of the family farm.  The concept of sustainable agriculture embraces a wide range of techniques.  A common thread among sustainable methods is farming practices that mimic natural ecological processes. Farmers minimize tilling and water use; encourage healthy soil by planting fields with different crops year after year and integrating croplands with livestock grazing; and avoid pesticide use by nurturing the presence of organisms that control crop-destroying pests.”

            Think about this definition, it lacks the human aspect of farming.  After all, without the “human” component there will be no agriculture, sustainable or conventional.  So let’s look at another definition. 

The U.S. government “farm bill” defined sustainable agriculture in 1990 as a system that 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; and
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

The U.S government definition is inclusive of the components necessary in sustainable agriculture. Below are the same ideas phrased in a complete definition.

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." (Ikerd.  "Sustainability’s Promise," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 1990)

Imagine a 3-legged stool. What happens if one of the legs breaks, or one leg is missing entirely?  The whole stool falls over. The 3-legged stool has become a metaphor for the need to consider the economic, environmental, and social impacts of agriculture.

To create a sustainable system all legs must be fulfilled.  If not, the “structure” collapses.

Sustainability Stool:

What would happen if one of the legs were broken?


This video will help clarify the meaning of sustainable agriculture.  

Discussion questions:

There are many definitions of sustainability, each with a different meaning and interpretation.  In your own words, post in the discussion forum how you define sustainably. What does your definition mean to you?  

Last modified: Sunday, 11 December 2011, 05:19 PM
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