Below is my analysis and discussion of various definitions of
sustainable agriculture that have been offered in published
literature (1978- 1992). Given that all definitions are politically
motivated to some degree, my concern is not so much with coming up
with the one, true, universal definition. I am more concerned with
finding common ground among diverse constituencies which might help
develop a formidable and lasting coalition to promote an
agriculture that is worth sustaining. This is part of a chapter
that will appear later this year in volume titled "Sustainable
Agriculture in the American Midwest: Lessons from the Past, Prospects
for the Future" published by the University of Illinois Press, edited
by myself and W. R. Edwards. Sustainable Agricultue needs to be a
part of a sustainable society, and various ideas about that are
discussed elsewhere in this chapter. I am basically sympathetic with
the ideas of Herman Daly and John Cobb (For the Common Good) who
argue for a steady state economy that improves qualitiatively. We
also need to figure out in qualitative and quantitative terms, the
human carying capacity of ecological systems on local and global
Sustainability of Agriculture
Wes Jackson, geneticist and co-founder of the Land Institute,
was probably the first to use the term "sustainable agriculture" in
recent times (Jackson, 1978). Since natural ecosystems have stood
the test of time, Jackson argued, they should serve as models for
sustainable agriculture. His proposal for a sustainable agriculture
in the North American plains consists of perennial seed crops
modeled after the prairie ecosystem. Permanent ground cover would
decrease soil erosion; tillage and planting would occur infrequently
and require little energy. He initiated a research program to
develop perennial seed bearing crops for human and animal
consumption as well as for energy production.
As the concept of sustainability became more widely accepted,
several complementary and competing definitions and strategies for
sustainable agriculture have been offered. Gordon Douglass (1984)
described three major themes in the sustainable agriculture
literature: sustainability as food sufficiency, as stewardship of
the earth, and as community. According to Douglass, these themes
seem to be promoted by three different constituencies. Those who
argue for sustainability as food sufficiency tend to see the sole or
primary function of agriculture as providing abundant food for
growing populations. The U.S. Land Grant Colleges of Agriculture
have a long history of research and eduction geared to increased
agricultural productivity (Busch and Lacy, 1983), and
representatives of these institutions commonly frame the discussion
on sustainability in terms of increased productivity (Holt, 1988;
Hoeft and Nafziger, 1988; Ruttan, 1989). The second group, who
Douglass identifies with "stewardship," argue from an ecological
point of view for maintaining the Earth's biological systems by
preserving wild land and biodiversity, closing energy and nutrient
cycles, and slowing and eventually stopping human population growth.
Some who might fit into this category might argue against the
anthropocentric overtones of the term "stewardship." Those
concerned with sustainability as community see agriculture as an
important cultural activity which provides meaning, cultivates moral
responsibility, and continues traditions of caring for the earth and
future generations (Burkhardt, 1989).
Various professional societies and interest groups have offered
definitions of sustainable agriculture which address all three
elements identified by Douglass. For example, the American Society
of Agronomy developed the following definition of sustainable
A sustainable agriculture is one that, over the long
term, enhances the environmental quality and the
resource base on which agriculture depends; provides for
basic human food and fiber needs; is economically
viable; and enhances the quality of life for farmers and
society as a whole. (Francis and Youngberg, 1990).
Economist Pierre Crosson (1992) contends that "a sustainable
agriculture is one that can indefinitely meet the needs for food and
fiber at socially acceptable economic and environmental costs."
Crosson views knowledge as the key for attaining sustainability and
calls for a concerted research effort to expand agricultural
production while becoming less dependent on fossil fuels and more
friendly to the environment.
Like economist Richard Norgaard, ecologist Stephen Gliessman
(1990) argues for a coevolutionary approach to understanding
Agricultural systems develop as a result of the
coevolution that occurs between culture and environment,
and a truly sustainable agriculture values humans as
well as the ecological components...Our understanding of
ecosystem level processes should interface with the even
more complex aspects of the social, economic and
political systems within which agroecosystems function.
Gliessman proposes that the sustainability of agricultural systems
can be assessed, like natural ecosystems, by examining their energy
flows, nutrient cycles, population regulation mechanisms and dynamic
equilibria. Qualitative and quantitative indicators of agricultural
sustainability may emerge from careful analysis of regional and site
specific social and agro-ecological relationships over time.
Furthermore, Patricia Allen, working in collaboration with
Stephen Gliessman and others (1991), argues that much of the
discussion of sustainable agriculture has been overly focused on
farm-level production and profitability. They propose that
"sustainable agriculture is one that equitably balances concerns of
environmental soundness, economic viability and social justice among
all sectors of society." Such a definition would bring issues such
as urban poverty and hunger into the discussion of sustainable
Interestingly, Donald Holt (1989), Director of the Illinois
Agricultural Experiment and generally an advocate of the
productivity paradigm, suggested that any proposals for increasing
agricultural sustainability should be assessed for its impacts on
low income groups. Since the poor spend a greater percentage of
their income on food, any efforts to increase agricultural
sustainability that increases food prices will harm the poor
disproportionately. This claim should be carefully assessed for
accuracy, since malnutrition in the US is still unacceptably
widespread in spite of high agricultural productivity. However, an
important point relative to the discussion of different conceptions
of sustainable agriculture is that those emphasizing sustainable
agriculture as community and those emphasizing food sufficiency
through increased productivity both claim at times to act in the
best interest of least advantaged members of society.
Unfortunately, the environmental movement in the US has been
justifiably criticized for its lack of attention to the agendas and
concerns of racial minorities and low income groups (Bullard, 1990).
Furthermore, there is some anthropological evidence to suggest that
in some ways environmentalism may be part of an attempt (perhaps
unconscious) by an upwardly mobile middle class to separate itself
from what it considers lower and inferior classes of people who are
in need of reform (Frykman and Lofgren, 1987). However, there
appears to be a growing movement toward environmental justice
(Bullard, 1990) and if those emphasizing preservation of ecosystems
are willing to expand their agenda to accommodate (or even champion)
concerns of the least advantaged members of the society, then the
three groups identified by Douglass will have this common goal
sustainable agriculture. Perhaps focusing on the needs of the least
advantaged members of society can be a constructive starting point
for the diverse constituencies that claim interest in the
sustainability of agriculture to build a formidable and lasting
coalition. However, creating a decision making process that can
fairly resolve disputes over equity is one of the most profound
challenges facing agriculture (Allen et al., 1991).
A Possible Consensus
There appears to be some agreement that sustainability ought
to be understood through a coevolutionary perspective in which
humans should not cause irreversible changes in ecological processes
or degradation of the natural resource base. Furthermore,
sustainable agriculture should encourage and preserve cultural
traditions which equitably balance social justice, environmental
soundness and economic viability among all sectors of the society.
This concept may become elaborated or change radically as our
understanding of ecological processes and social impacts change. In
the meantime, we can minimize our collective impact on the
environment by implementing cultural, organizational and
technological changes, such as reducing consumption, carefully
examining the bases and consequences of our value systems, and
developing technologies for utilizing renewable resources in an
efficient and sustainable manner.
Allen, P, D. Van Dusen, J. Lundy and S. Gliessman. 1991.
Integrating social, environmental, and economic issues in
sustainable agriculture. American Journal of Alternative
Burkhardt, J. The morality behind sustainability. 1989. Journal of
Agricultural Ethics 2:113-128.
Busch, L and W.B. Lacy. 1983. Science, Agriculture and the
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Crosson, P. R. 1992. Sustainable Agriculture. Resources, Winter:
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Douglass, G.K. (ed) Agricultural Sustainability in a Changing World
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Francis, C.A. and G. Youngberg. 1990. Sustainable Agriculture - an
overview. In: Francis, C.A., C.B. Flora, and L.D. King (Eds.)
Sustainable Agriculture in Temperate Zones, John Wiley and Sons, New
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Frykman, J., and O. Lofgren. 1987. Culture Builders: A Historical
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