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What is Agricultural Sustainability?

February 23, 2014

We so often use the word “sustainable” in relation to our agricultural systems. What does this really mean? I am going to use some quotations from a definition from Dr. John Ikerd, a retired agricultural economist(, simply because he explains it so incredibly well.

“Agriculture, by its very nature, is an effort to shift the ecological balance so as to favor humans relative to other species in production of food and physical protection. Thus, if we sustain “agriculture” we are sustaining it for the ultimate benefit of humankind. I believe there is a general consensus also that we want to sustain agriculture for the well being of people, both of this generations and for all generations to follow, forever. I have seen no definition of sustainable agriculture that places a time horizon on how long agriculture should be sustained.”

“A sustainable agriculture must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. Furthermore, I contend that these three dimensions of sustainability are inseparable, and thus, are equally critical to long run sustainability.”

“Sustainable systems must be economically viable, either by nature or through human intervention. In many cases, farmers have economic incentives to adopt ecologically sound systems of farming. A healthy agroecosystem tends to be a productive and profitable agroecosystem. However, inherent conflicts exist between short run interests of individuals and long run interests of society as a whole. In such cases, society must provide economic incentives for individuals to act in ways consistent with long run societal interests.”

“Agriculture cannot be sustained if the only economically viable “neighbors” are those who degrade the agroecosystem in pursuit of short run profits.”

“Human societies that lack economic equity and social justice are inherently unstable, and thus, are not sustainable over time. Such systems will be characterized by recurring social conflicts which may do irreparable damage to both the economic and ecologic systems that must support them.”

“A socially responsible agriculture; one that equitably meets basic human food and fiber needs, provides economic opportunity, supports self-determination, and ensures social equity for both current and future generations; is no less critical to long run sustainability than is an ecologically sound and economically viable agriculture. We must have social incentives to create economic rewards for ecological protection. An important dimension of human nature is our ability to learn, discover new options, and to choose new and different responses. This ability to change our stimulus-response patterns is unique to the human species. Sustainability is not possible unless we develop our “collective” will to exercise this uniquely human social trait.”

“When agriculture production in a particular field is not autonomously sustainable, it places stress on the farming system as a whole. When a farm is not autonomously sustainable, it places stress on the community of which it is a part. When an agricultural sector is not sustainable, it places stress on a nation; and a nation that is not sustainable places stress on the rest of the world. Some lack of autonomous sustainability at all levels should be considered normal, even necessary, for a healthy, interdependent global society.”

“It is no less important to monitor and control the social stress an agricultural system places on farm families and others in rural communities than it is to monitor the economic stress agriculture puts on food consumers or the ecological stress agriculture puts on its natural environment.”

“Questions of social responsibility ultimately must be answered by society, by families, communities, and others affected collectively by agricultural decisions. However, it is logically imperative that we recognize ecological soundness, economic viability, and social responsibility all as essential and thus equally critical to the sustainability of agriculture.”

One of the reasons that I like this definition of sustainability is that it is inclusive, it invites participation from our communities, and it recognizes that we are part of a global community. We are all involved in this “agricultural experiment” together. How does our agriculture impact the health of our community, and what can we collectively do to maintain and improve it?

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