Section A: What makes agriculture “sustainable”?
- Projected Outcomes
- Presentation (MS PowerPoint Presentation)
- Career Pathway content standards
After this segment, students will:
- Be able to define the term “sustainable”
- Distinguish between the goals and the practices used to achieve the goals of sustainable agriculture and food systems.
- Demonstrate awareness of economic, environmental, and community impacts of agriculture.
- Sustainable agriculture: an approach which is profitable, environmentally sound, and beneficial to family and community interaction
- Goal: a desired end
- Practice: an action to achieve a goal
- Organic: a set of production practices that rely on minimal use of off-farm inputs and aim to restore, maintain, or enhance the ecological systems that can benefit agriculture
Introduction: What is Sustainable Agriculture?
In the words of one Iowa farmer, sustainable agriculture is a journey rather than a destination. The word “sustainable” comes from the word “sustain” which means to maintain, support, or to endure. People involved in sustainable agriculture are trying to identify and solve the problems in our current agricultural system in order to provide food and fiber in a healthy environment for people over the long term. At least for now, no one has developed a fully sustainable agriculture, and for the foreseeable future there will always be room for improvement.
The Three Legs of Sustainability
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 (or any of our actions). If our agricultural system has unacceptable impacts in any one of these spheres, it can’t support producers and contribute to the community over the long term.
In order to be sustainable, three areas must be addressed by our agriculture, food, and natural resource systems. These three areas are economics, environment, and community. A sustainable agriculture must provide a fair and reasonably secure living for farm families. It should minimize harm to the natural environment. It should maintain basic natural resources such as healthy soil, clean water, and clean air. And it should support viable rural communities and fair treatment of all people involved in the food system, from farm workers to consumers.
The 1990 Farm Bill defines sustainable agriculture as:
“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.”
Let’s take a look at each individual “leg” of the sustainability stool.
Sustainable agriculture is economically sustainable. Agriculture should provide a secure living to farm families and others employed in food production and processing. An economically sustainable approach also provides access to good food for all people.
Sustainable agriculture is environmentally sound. It preserves the quality of basic natural resources that the farms, businesses and the surrounding environment rely on, including soil, water, and air. Agriculture affects natural resources. Cooperating with natural resource systems instead of trying to overpower them can offer benefits to food production as well as the natural environment .
Sustainable agriculture is good for families and communities. It promotes opportunities and cooperative relationships for family and community members. For example, a local food marketing system called community supported agriculture (CSA) offers opportunities for people to get into farming without major capital investment; provides work for family members, including children, on the farm; and creates direct partnerships with consumers in the community.
Goals versus Practices
Profitable economics, healthy environment, and vital communities are all goals. They are what we are trying to achieve. Practices are actions we take to achieve those goals. Why don’t we define sustainable agriculture in terms of practices? There are two important reasons: First, we expect that our knowledge will increase in the future, so practices used now may not be considered the best practices ten years from now. Second, the effect of a practice can vary enormously depending on how and where it is performed. For example, plowing on a steep hillside is unsustainable because it causes too much soil erosion. However, occasional plowing on level ground can be a sustainable tool for some cropping systems.
In order to attain our goals, we need to take certain actions, that is, follow certain practices. So one of the things we’ll explore in the next few days are examples of sustainable practices, such as crop rotation, riparian buffer strips, rotational grazing, and direct marketing. Keep in mind, though, that these are not all the possible practices and if they don’t help us achieve our goals, they are not sustainable, no matter what the practice.
The Organic Example
For many people, sustainable agriculture is closely identified with organic agriculture. Unlike sustainable agriculture, though, organic agriculture is officially defined by practices rather than goals.
In the United States, the practices that are required and the practices that are prohibited in organic agriculture have been set forth in federal law since 2001. Anyone can use these practices in their garden or field, but for products to be labeled and sold as “organic” they must be certified by an independent third-party certifier. In a nutshell, organic farmers must:
- rotate crops to maintain soil quality and manage pests,
- keep records of their operation that will be examined by the certifier,
- minimize use of off-farm inputs,
- refrain from using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and
- refrain from using genetically modified organisms.
An organic processor must:
- keep organic products separate from non-certified products, and
- keep synthetic pesticides, preservatives, and other unapproved substances away from organic products.
Visit the US organic standards to get a sense of some of the complexity of the requirements and the questions surrounding this relatively new program. For additional information, see the National Organic Program’s web page.
Is organic agriculture sustainable?
Many farmers and consumers feel that organic agriculture is sustainable. On the whole, organic practices do a good job of protecting the natural environment and may be better for the health of both producers and consumers. Farmers also like the fact that organic products often bring higher prices in the marketplace, which means they contribute to economic sustainability.
Other farmers and consumers note that organic agriculture does not really address economic and social sustainability. When most organic producers and processors were small-scale idealists, organic agriculture may also have addressed social and economic needs in rural communities. However, as the organic market has grown, the organic food system has come to look more like the conventional food system, with large-scale producers and processors and shrinking margins for farmers.
Suggested discussion or essay question: Which is better – a general goal-oriented definition like that for sustainable agriculture or a more specific practice-based definition like that for organic agriculture? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Provide specific examples.
(preparation for Section B)
Career Pathway content standards
|Projected Outcome||National Agricultural Education Standards|
Performance Element or
(in this section)
|1. Define the term “sustainable”.||PS.03.04 Apply principles and practices of sustainable agriculture to plant production.||A-1, A-2|
|2. Distinguish between the goals and the practices used to achieve the goals of sustainable agriculture and food systems.||ABS.02 Utilize appropriate management planning principles in AFNR business enterprises.|
PS.03.04 Apply principles and practices of sustainable agriculture to plant production.
|3. Demonstrate awareness of economic, environmental, and community impacts of agriculture.||CS.09 Compare and contrast issues affecting the AFNR industry.|
BS.03.03 Use biotechnology to monitor and evaluate procedures performed in AFNR systems.
|4. Explain ways that agro-ecosystems function to support sustainable agriculture.||NRS.01 Explain interrelationships between natural resources and humans necessary to conduct management activities in natural environments.||A-2, A-3, A-5|
|5. Identify and describe parts of a local food system.||FPP.01 Examine components of the food industry and historical development of food products and processing.||A-3, A-4|
|6. Give examples of practices used in sustainable agriculture.||PS.03.04 Apply principles and practices of sustainable agriculture to plant production.|
AS.08 Analyze environmental factors associated with animal production.