The goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s subsistence needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system—growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers—can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.
There are many practices commonly used by people working in sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems. Growers may use methods to promote soil health minimize water use and lower pollution levels on the farm. Consumers and retailers concerned with sustainability can look for foods that are grown using methods promoting methods that are environmentally friendly, or that strengthen the local economy. And researchers in sustainable agriculture often cross disciplinary lines with their work: combining biology, economics, engineering, chemistry, community development, and many others. However, sustainable agriculture is more than a collection of practices. It is also the process of negotiation: a push and pulls between the sometimes competing interests of an individual farmer or of people in a community as they work to solve complex problems about how we grow our food and fiber.
Agriculture has changed dramatically, especially since the end of World War II. Food and fiber productivity soared due to new technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization and government policies that favoured maximizing production.
Although these changes have had many positive effects and reduced many risks in farming, there have also been significant costs. Prominent among these are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm labourers, increasing costs of production, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.
Potential Costs of Modern Agricultural Techniques
Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals — environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.
A growing movement has emerged during the past two decades to question the role of the agricultural establishment in promoting practices that contribute to these social problems. Today this movement for sustainable agriculture is garnering increasing support and acceptance within mainstream agriculture. Not only does sustainable agriculture address many environmental and social concerns, but it offers innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, labourers, consumers, policymakers and many others in the entire food system.
A variety of philosophies, policies and practices have contributed to these goals. People in many different capacities, from farmers to consumers, have shared this vision and contributed to it.
Despite the diversity of people and perspectives, the following themes commonly weave through definitions of sustainable agriculture:
Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Therefore, responsible management of both natural and human resources is of prime importance. Management of human resources includes consideration of social responsibilities such as working and living conditions of labourers, the needs of rural communities, and consumer health and safety both in the present and the future. Management of land and natural resources involves maintaining or enhancing this vital resource base for the long term.
A systemic perspective is essential to understanding sustainability.
The system is envisioned in its broadest sense, from the individual farm, to the local ecosystem, and to communities affected by this farming system both locally and globally. An emphasis on the system allows a larger and more thorough view of the consequences of farming practices in both human communities and the environment. A systems approach gives us the tools to explore the interconnections between farming and other aspects of our environment.
A systemic approach also implies interdisciplinary efforts in research and education.
This requires not only the input of researchers from various disciplines but also farmers, farm workers, consumers, policymakers and others.
Making the transition to sustainable agriculture is a process.
For farmers, the transition to sustainable agriculture normally requires a series of small realistic steps. Family economics and personal goals influence how fast or how far participants can go in the transition. It is important to realize that each small decision can make a difference and contribute to advancing the entire system further on the “sustainable agriculture continuum.” The key to moving forward is the will to take the next step.
It is important to note that reaching toward the goal of sustainable agriculture is the responsibility of all participants in the system, including farmers, labourers, policymakers, researchers, retailers, and consumers. Each group has its own part to play, its own unique contribution to make to strengthen the sustainable agriculture community.