Sustainable Agriculture, What Does it Mean?

Tomato flowers, credit: KJHvM

Almost everything we do in life must focus on sustainability in order to guarantee the possibilities of continuing those practices in the future. However, lately it seems the term sustainability has become more of a buzz word that implies something better, thus opening the doors for advertising and marketers to take advantage of certain elements of their products that seem more sustainable than their competitors.
Sustainability is not a buzz word to farmers, as agriculture has always focused on producing food for our communities while caring the environment in which we live. Still, history has proven that sustainability in any measure is a task that is hard to achieve.
As we talk about sustainable agriculture there are several key elements that seem to get left out of different perspectives. In order to better understand how farmers work to overcome social, political and environmental issues surrounding the sustainability of their farms its important we address all aspects of sustainability in our discussions around agriculture.
To start with here are some key areas around sustainable agriculture:

  • Economic – In my mind economic sustainability has to be achieved on all sizes and shapes of farms. Farmers must be able to produce enough from their land to cover the cost of living for their families from year to year, if they fail to achieve this they have no opportunity to look at the other areas of sustainability.
  • Animal Welfare / Plant Health – The health and well being of a farmers crops and livestock ultimately determine how successful he/she becomes. When farm animals are not properly cared for they can become ill, depressed or injured and can even die. Poorly managed crops will also suffer from increased pressure from competition for natures available nutrients. In essence lack of care of results in fewer products and/or damaged, unmarketable goods. To dig into this aspect of sustainability check out Marcus Hollmann’s article on animal welfare in sustainable food production.
  • Demand – Even if all other aspects of sustainability are achieved if there is not demand for ones goods the farmers, like any other business would ultimately fail and seek other avenues for revenue to support their family. Demand is always changing based off of price, nutrition, food safety or emotional issues that can easily change public perception. Farmers must always be looking for the future to determine what goods are demanded in the marketplace and what can sustainably supply their farm.
  • Personal Fulfillment – Everyone seeks personal fulfillment in their life and careers. If one is not personally satisfied with their job they will quickly abandon it when a better opportunity arises. The same goes true for the opposite and several other components of sustainability can be trumped when personal fulfillment is achieved. For instance it is not uncommon for a farmer to take a part time job to supplement their income or in some cases even make up for losses from their farm activities.
  • Environmental – Most farms have been operating for generations, this is only possible when farmers properly manage the scarce resources that are available to them with minimum impact to their environment. If a proper equilibrium is not maintained on a farm and the community in which it operates it ultimately will not be able to be sustainable in the future.

In an ideal world, all aspects of civilization would work in equilibrium with each other to balance the use of our resources. Unfortunately the world is not ideal, therefore we must continue to improve by doing more while using less of the finite resources available to us: in essence become more sustainable. Despite what some headlines may lead one to believe, agriculture as an industry has one of the best track records at improving its management of resources and continues to look for ways to improve.
All of these elements could easily be expanded on in detail, and they affect each individual farm uniquely. It’s interesting to me that all the factors intertwine with each other, and in several cases even contradict one another, making true sustainability an even more complex task to accomplish.
What areas of agricultural sustainability are most important to your household or farm and should be prioritized over the other? This is a complex topic and surely deserves more discussion than a marketing slogan so I am interested in expanding the thoughts in this post with the discussion below.
Mike Haley is a row crop farmer and cattle rancher. His farm in Ohio has been in the family since 1907. Mike tweets as @farmerhaley and blogs at Haley Farms.


  1. I like the idea of teasing out more of the nuances of agricultural sustainability. When I was in classes for my minor in sustainable agriculture, the model they always used was the “three legged stool” that includes environmental, social, and economic aspects. I think in your example, one could make an argument that demand is part of economics – although there are additional points there such as marketing that are important as well as the role of the consumer. Personal fulfillment might be lumped in with social aspects but I like the added dimensions of it that you explain here. Most of all, I appreciate that you include animal welfare and plant health – they don’t quite fit in any of the aspects of the stool but certainly are important for more than just economic reasons. One bullet that I’d like to see added to this list is soil health. While soil health could be lumped in with environment, so much of the farm’s health depends on it that it seems to need its own category.

  2. Surely there are many dimensions that need to be taken into account, not just environmental aspects. And in many cases you can improve on one dimension only by suffering on another. For instance, banning cars would imply environmental benefits but costs of reduced mobility. Trying to find options without ANY cost is very difficult.
    The important task for individuals and policymakers is to weigh all the costs and benefits. It does not make sense to focus only on one aspect and disregard all others. But what must also be clear is that these key areas of sustainability (say, environmental, economic, and social) should not receive equal consideration in every decision. It depends on how large the potential impacts for each of the key areas are. A good base for making rational decisions is to transform the impacts from different dimensions into one common unit of measurement. (That’s why economists often try to put a $ tag on goods and services that have no market prices.) This is also the why it shouldn’t matter whether “mobility” is considered part of the economic or of the social area.
    Let’s take the example of Bt crops and the monarch butterfly. Even if that initial study in Nature was much overinterpreted, at least some butterflys have probably died due to Bt and the survival of these butterflys has at at least some value. But the positive impact of Bt in terms of replacing much more harmful insecticides has prevented many more deaths of other nontarget insects. And we’re still only talking environment. You must also consider increased income for farmers and lower food prices for consumers, and this should arguably carry more weight in the decision to ban Bt crops, than the impact on nontarget insects. To oversimplify, most of us don’t value the survival of a butterfly more than the survival of a human being.
    I guess my message is that when an option would let you suffer in one key area of sustainability but gain in another, you have to find ways to compare costs and benefits across the different areas.

  3. Well said, Mike. I think the economic portion doesn’t get discussed often enough. To maintain a generational operation year after year the farm must provide a return for the farmer. As you say a farm must make money or it has no chance to look into continued sustainability.

  4. “In an ideal world, all aspects of civilization would work in equilibrium with each other to balance the use of our resources. Unfortunately the world is not ideal, therefore we must continue to improve by doing more while using less of the finite resources available to us: in essence become more sustainable. Despite what some headlines may lead one to believe, agriculture as an industry has one of the best track records at improving its management of resources and continues to look for ways to improve.”
    SO simple and eloquent…SO true!
    I want to share this with a number of customer-friends. There are so many who just do not understand.

  5. I’m not a farmer, but have great respect for farmers.I know NOTHING about the business of farming. I’m a consumer. I’m curious about the role of politics. I’m wondering about how family farms manage in competition with big business and how imports/exports affect farmers.
    I wonder if the food grown in this country feeds the people here. I wonder if consumers realize, when they throw away a bowl of left over string beans, that someone grew and picked them.
    In this uneducated consumer’s mind, sustainable means that we grow food in such a way that humans can survive comfortably without using methods that could ultimately harm us. I have a role. I need to be willing to pay a fair price, willing to eat things that are in season, willing to help make family farming thrive. I’m an idealist, maybe?

  6. Over irrigation and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers ,year after year,has increased the salinity of the land and brought down yeild in many parts of India.That is the downside of the Green Revolution.That is exactly what sustainability is not.What are we handing over to our children?Sustainability is passing over to the next generation,better land than what we worked on.And also be able to feed ourselves.Am I there?

  7. This is a great post. I like it, Sustainable agriculture is the ability of a farmer to produce food in such a way that the environment and surrounding ecosystem, is unaffected by their agricultural activities.

  8. The importance of this event lies in the fact that not only do many other seafood industries practice horrendously damaging seafood harvest methods, but even beyond the realm of seafood many types of agricultural and livestock techniques are causing irreparable harm to the planet.

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