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Sustainable agriculture

Related subjects: Agriculture

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Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals: environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and prosperous farming communities. These goals have been defined by a variety of disciplines and may be looked at from the vantage point of the farmer or the consumer.


Sustainable agriculture refers to the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to ecosystem health. Two key issues are biophysical (the long-term effects of various practices on soil properties and processes essential for crop productivity) and socio-economic (the long-term ability of farmers to obtain inputs and manage resources such as labor).

The physical aspects of sustainability are partly understood (Altieri 1995). Practices that can cause long-term damage to soil include excessive tillage (leading to erosion) and irrigation without adequate drainage (leading to accumulation of salt in the soil). Long-term experiments provide some of the best data on how various practices affect soil properties essential to sustainability.

Although air and sunlight are available everywhere on Earth, crops also depend on soil nutrients and the availability of water. When farmers grow and harvest crops, they remove some of these nutrients from the soil. Without replenishment, the land would suffer from nutrient depletion and be unusable for further farming. Sustainable agriculture depends on replenishing the soil while minimizing the use of non-renewable resources, such as natural gas (used in converting atmospheric nitrogen into synthetic fertilizer), or mineral ores (e.g., phosphate). Possible sources of nitrogen that would, in principle, be available indefinitely, include:

  1. recycling crop waste and livestock or human manure
  2. growing legume crops and forages such as, peanuts, or alfalfa that form symbioses with nitrogen-fixing bacteria called rhizobia
  3. industrial production of nitrogen by the Haber Process uses hydrogen, which is currently derived from natural gas, (but this hydrogen could instead be made by electrolysis of water using electricity (perhaps from solar cells or windmills)) or
  4. genetically engineering (non-legume) crops to form nitrogen-fixing symbioses or fix nitrogen without microbial symbionts.

The last option was proposed in the 1970s, but would be well beyond the capability of early 21st century technology, even if various concerns about biotechnology were addressed. Sustainable options for replacing other nutrient inputs (phosphorus, potassium, etc.) are more limited.

In some areas, sufficient rainfall is available for crop growth, but many other areas require irrigation. For irrigation systems to be sustainable they must be managed properly (to avoid salt accumulation) and not use more water from their source than is naturally replenished, otherwise the water source becomes, in effect, a non-renewable resource. Improvements in water well drilling technology and the development of submersible pumps have made it possible for large crops to be regularly grown where reliance on rainfall alone previously made this level of success unpredictable. However, this progress has come at a price, in that in many areas where this has occurred, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, the water is being used at a greater rate than its rate of recharge.

Socioeconomic aspects of sustainability are also partly understood. Regarding less concentrated farming, the best known analysis is Netting's (1993) study on smallholder systems through history.

Sustainable agriculture was also addressed by the 1990 farm bill [Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603].

It was defined as follows:

Stated by: “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 fibre 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 the finite supply of natural resources at any specific cost and location, agriculture that is inefficient or damaging to needed resources may eventually exhaust the available resources or the ability to afford and acquire them. It may also generate negative externality, such as pollution as well as financial and production costs.

The way that crops are sold must be accounted for in the sustainability equation. Food sold locally requires little additional energy, aside from that necessary for cultivation, harvest, and transportation (including consumers). Food sold at a remote location, whether at a farmers' market or the supermarket, incurs a different set of energy cost for materials, labour, and transport.

The most important factors for an individual site are sun, air, soil and water. Of the four, water and soil quality and quantity are most amenable to human intervention through time and labour.

What grows and how and where it is grown are a matter of choice. Two of the many possible practices of sustainable agriculture are crop rotation and soil amendment, both designed to ensure that crops being cultivated can obtain the necessary nutrients for healthy growth.


Monoculture, a method of growing only one crop at a time in a given field, is a very widespread practice, but there are questions about its sustainability, especially if the same crop is grown every year. Growing a mixture of crops (polyculture) sometimes reduces disease or pest problems Nature 406, 718-722 Genetic diversity and disease control in rice, Environ. Entomol. 12:625) but polyculture has rarely, if ever, been compared to the more widespread practice of growing different crops in successive years crop rotation with the same overall crop diversity. For example, how does growing a corn-bean mixture every year compare with growing corn and bean in alternate years? Cropping systems that include a variety of crops (polyculture and/or rotation) may also replenish nitrogen (if legumes are included) and may also use resources such as sunlight, water, or nutrients more efficiently (Field Crops Res. 34:239).

Replacing a natural ecosystem with a few specifically chosen plant varieties as is done in farming results in an artificial ecosystem that lacks the genetic diversity found in wildlife and is thus more susceptible to widespread disease. The Great Irish Famine (1845-1849) is a well-known example of the dangers of monoculture.

Many scientists, farmers, and businesses have debated how to make agriculture farming sustainable. One of the many practices includes growing a diverse number of perennial crops in a single field, each of which would grow in separate season so as not to compete with each other for natural resources. This system would result in increased resistance to diseases and decreased effects of erosion and loss of nutrients in soil. Nitrogen fixation from legumes, for example, used in conjunction with plants that rely on nitrate from soil for growth, helps to allow the land to be reused annually. Legumes will grow for a season and replenish the soil with ammonium and nitrate, and the next season other plants can be seeded and grown in the field in preparation for harvest.

In practice, there is no single approach to sustainable agriculture, as the precise goals and methods must be adapted to each individual case. There may be some techniques of farming that are inherently in conflict with the concept of sustainability, but there is widespread misunderstanding on impacts of some practices. For example, the slash-and-burn techniques that are the characteristic feature of shifting cultivators are often cited as inherently destructive, yet slash-and-burn cultivation has been practiced in the Amazon for at least 6000 years (Sponsel 1986); serious deforestation did not begin until the 1970s, largely as the result of Brazilian government programs and policies (Hecht and Cockburn 1989).

There are also many ways to practice sustainable animal husbandry. Some of the key tools to grazing management include fencing off the grazing area into smaller areas called paddocks, lowering stock density, and moving the stock between paddocks frequently.

Several attempts have been made to produce an artificial meat, using isolated tissues to produce it in vitro; Jason Matheny's work on this topic, whichin the New Harvest project, is one of the most commented.

Off-farm impacts

What if a farm is able to "produce perpetually", yet has negative effects on environmental quality elsewhere? Most people concerned with sustainability take a global view, so they try to avoid negative off-farm impacts. For example, over-application of synthetic fertilizer or animal manures can pollute nearby rivers and coastal waters. On the other hand, if crop yields are too low, because of soil exhaustion of nutrients or reduced ability to retain water, farmers would need to access new lands for agriculture, leading to the decimation of the rainforest, draining wetlands, etc.

We must also consider the impact of sustainability on overall production. If the human population is to continue its growth, it will need food and fibre to do so. The United Nations estimates the world will inhabit 9.3 billion people by 2050, which will necessitate a dramatic increase in production capabilities. The increased production will likely come from one of two different ways. First, you can either break out virgin land to grow crops, though concerns over global warming make this option unsavory. Second, you can increase yields on existing land, which will likely require adopting technologies many sustainable advocates are opposed to, principally Genetically modified organism crops.

Many advocates of sustainable agriculture think that organic agriculture is the only system which can be sustained over the long-term. However, organic production methods, especially in transition, yield less than their conventional counterparts. While there is evidence which gives organic an advantage during periods of drought one must be careful not to place too much emphasis on these figures. While drought is a real threat to agriculture production, it is hardly the norm. Even when drought strikes, stockpiles help mitigate food security concerns. Regardless of reduced yields under optimal conditions, it should be noted that during periods of prolonged drought as predicted by global warming scientists, organic production methods should be considered as a way to adapt to a changing climate.

Urban planning

There has been considerable debate about which form of human residential habitat may be a better social form for sustainable agriculture. Generally, it is thought that village communities can improve sustainability in that such communities tend to provide a cooperative environment that supports farming.

Many environmentalists pushing for increased population density to preserve agricultural land point out that urban sprawl is less sustainable and more damaging to the environment than living in the cities where cars are not needed because food and other necessities are within walking distance. However, others have theorized that sustainable ecocities, or ecovillages which combine habitation and farming with close proximity between producers and consumers, may provide greater sustainability.

The use of available city space (e.g., rooftop gardens and community gardens) for cooperative food production is another way to achieve greater sustainability.

One of the latest ideas in achieving sustainable agricultural involves shifting the production of food plants from major factory farming operations to large, urban, technical facilities called vertical farms. The advantages of vertical farming include year-round production, isolation from pests and diseases, controllable resource recycling, and on-site production that eliminates the need for transportation costs. While a vertical farm has yet to become a reality, the idea is gaining momentum among those who believe that current sustainable farming methods will be insufficient to provide for a growing global population. For vertical farming to become a reality, billions of dollars in tax credits and subsidies will need to be made available to the operation. It may be difficult to justify spending billions of dollars on a vertical farm that will only feed 50,000 people when agriculture land remains abundant.

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