I recently read Crews et al.s paper (1991 Amer. J. Alternative Agr.
6:146-149). In general what they say supports the argument that for
an agricultural system to be sustainable it must be sustainable on a
Social, Economical, and Ecological basis. I know they would not
agree, but follow my argument for a moment.
The three components of sustainable agriculture can be diagrammed
on an equilateral triangle. Put Social on left side (not political
commentary but for the construction of an acronym that follows),
Economical on the right side, and Ecological on the base. (The
Ecological processes are the foundation of our life here.) It is an
equilateral triangle because they all have to be considered. The
terms are capitalized to give the acronym SEE. To SEE if an
agricultural system is sustainable it must be sustainable Socially,
Economically, and Ecologically.
A system approach is needed!
Crews et al. state that by equally weighting all ecological,
sociological, and economic characteristics of what might comprise a
sustainable agriculture, many authors have blurred the relationships
among the components.
We should not think of the Social, Economical, and Ecological
components as being weighted variable as in an linear regression
equation. Rather they are boundaries to a complex system. We
have to think in a multidimensional framework and not linearly. As
long as farming systems are within proper bounds they can be
sustainable. The major questions are: what are the boundaries, what
are the system functions and interactions, and how do we manage
them to achieve the desired outcomes.
Only by considering all three components (SEE) can we properly
analyze the system and over time identify the problems and work
our way to solutions. Yes a lot of relationships in life seem to be
blurred. Isnt that why university professors get paid such high
salaries to figure out the relationships. (I hope an attempt at humor
wont get me burned.) Hard work and common sense can bring
light to the problem. Most often we need the users or public, be
they farmers or consumers, to bring the common sense into play.
We need to be thinking more in terms of an optimization program
not a linear regression. Then take it a step further and realize that
the system is not only multidimensional but that it is also non-linear
and has feed back. (Chaos any one?) If any one of the boundaries
is pushed too far or too long the system will crash. This is an
Crews et al. appear to recognize social problems are a factor in
developing a sustainable agriculture. They argue that society
cannot be organized in ways that force farmers to adopt practices
that violate ecological constraints. Society should not be so
organized, but some times it has been.
Also they state that We contend that a rigorous and unambiguous
definition of what comprises an ecologically sustainable agriculture
is critical for evaluating the current situation and future direction of
Again to do this we have to get into the social arena. What is
ecologically sustainable to the catfish is not sustainable to the trout.
Who and how are we (society) going to determine what is the
proper ecological goal for a given area? A professional
acquaintance of mine from Brazil once asked; What right do people
from the US have, to tell us how to develop our resources. People
will have to have dialog and even economic trade offs to manage the
local and global system. As we learn from nature and from each
other we may find that our future direction has to change again and
Also they voice support for work on social organization to maintain
sustainable land management.
Further they discuss other conditions that must be met if farm
productivity is to be maintained over the long term: maintenance of
soil fertility, preservation of water supplies, protection of human
health, and conservation of species diversity
On soil fertility they imply that plant nutrients must be returned
from the cities to the farms. This requires consideration of social
and economic realities that exist.
Those social issues which affect the implementation of sustainable
food production systems have to be addressed if such systems are to
Crews et al. show that they are aware of the need for a system
approach to a sustainable agriculture.
We think that the profitability of and agroecosystem is so tightly
linked to the social structure of agriculture and ecological
components of sustainability that it should not be considered a
criterion in itself.
Any of the components taken in itself is like only one of the 5
proverbial blind men describing the elephant.
Their final conclusion was (W)e propose that economic profitability
not be considered a necessary condition of agricultural sustainability,
but rather an indicator of the extent to which a society is operating
within critical ecological constraints.
They dont say how they propose to do that. In the long run if it is
not profitable by some measure it will not continue. The measure of
profitability may be money, human energy in relative to food
energy out, or it may be the choice of life over death.
Crews et al. state: We have held that agriculture sustainability is
ultimately delimited by ecological constraints.
The ecological aspect is the foundation of sustainable agriculture. If
farmers are made aware of the effect of production practices on
water quality they will be the first to want to change their
management to make it more sustainable. They know that it is also
their environment. The most vocal proponent for keeping nitrates
out of ground water, that I know, is a woman member of the Farm
Bureau. This was after being part of a well water testing program in
They do well in using energy balance as a major criteria for
measuring farming system output relative to the fossil fuel input.
the sustainability of an agricultural system depends on the farmers
capacity to capture more solar energy in the harvest than he or she
uses to plow, irrigate, and perform other energy requiring practices
involved in growing the crop. .. a significant net solar energy
capture has to be made by the farming system as a whole.
All of agriculture is based on the harvesting and marketing of
sunshine in a modified form. We can say that a farmer sells three
things: sunshine, labor, and management.
In their discussion of the ecological aspects of sustainable agriculture
they left out one large point. Humans are a major part of the earths
ecology. Due to our superior ability to make tools we are the one
animal that has the ability to destroy or repair the environment on a
large scale. However, do we have the intelligence to learn how to
control our appetites and preserve the environment? An integral
part of our species behavior is our complex social systems. Part of
our social systems are our economic systems. It can be argued that
social and economic constraints on sustainable agriculture are a
subset of ecological constraints.
A few centuries ago if a society didnt live within the ecological
constraints of an area, it moved out or died out. Today in our
global village we have no where else to move. So we have to learn
to live within the ecological constraints or.....
Universities provide information - society has to solve the problem.
In their conclusion they state their objection to unification of all
three constraints under one term.
Many of the issues subsumed under sustainable agriculture could
stand alone, and indeed should be recognized as intrinsically
desirable social values. Grouping so many diverse and even
conflicting objectives obscures the sobering implications of what
constitutes an agriculture that can endure indefinitely.
This appears to be the standard university approach of putting every
department in its own building and ever discipline in its own pigeon
hole. We have to break that mold. This is a system problem, like it
or not. Some professionals work only at the discipline or sub-
discipline level. That is OK we need those types of people. Others
prefer and are capable of working at the system level. We need
It is difficult to do true interdisciplinary team research, but it can be
done if you can form real teams. I do not recommend that
ecologists or agronomists try to solve the social problems
constraining production agriculture but they should take part in the
Ultimately society must make the call on how we are going to
develop a sustainable agriculture. Should we extend this whole
thing to sustainable consumerism. It really is more than just food
at issue here relative to environmental quality and quality of life.
The process that we have may not be perfect but it is a good start.
Open education of the public (we all have our biases and yes Im in
Extension) and representative political systems will provide progress
in the right direction. People from all walks of life (university,
political and private) need to be involved in the study, development,
and implementation of a sustainable agriculture.
The ecological principles of a sustainable agriculture need to be
identified, used in the development of production and marketing
systems that are economically viable and socially tolerable to
producers and consumers. Not all ecological, economic, and social
problems need to be solved, since not all of them are due to
agricultural production and distribution.
A sustainable agriculture will be achieved by the incorporation of
new more sustainable components into our current system. When
an improved component is introduced enough people have to bement it and it needs to be profitable enough to pay
for its implementation.
Crews et al. state that moving toward sustainability and being
sustainable should not be considered the same. I disagree with that
statement and agree with the statement made some time ago on the
net that sustainability is a process and not a destination. We have
to grow into a sustainable agriculture. As our knowledge increases
our view of what is sustainable needs to change with our knowledge.
Extension Forage Agronomist
West Virginia University
P.O. Box 6108
Morgantown WV 26506