The concept of agricultural sustainability

The concept of agricultural sustainability

Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 46 ( 1993 ) 89-97 89 Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., Amsterdam Sustainable agriculture and the environme...

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Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 46 ( 1993 ) 89-97


Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., Amsterdam

Sustainable agriculture and the environment The concept of agricultural sustainability Neill Schaller Institute for Alternative Agriculture, 9200 Edmonston Road, Suite 117, Greenbelt, MD 20770, USA

Abstract Sustainable agriculture has become a popular code word for an environmentally sound, productive, economically viable, and socially desirable agriculture. This paper reviews reasons for growing interest in agricultural sustainability (mainly the unanticipated, adverse side-effects of conventional farming), examines the proposed ends and means of sustainability, and discusses two issues frequently debated - - the profitability of sustainable farming and the adequacy of food production from sustainable systems. The concept of agricultural sustainability does not lend itself to precise definition, partly because it implies a way of thinking as well as of using farming practices, and because the latter cannot be specified as final answers. Consequently, people's beliefs and values will continue to mold public understanding of the concept. Two different views of sustainable agriculture are held. One is that finetuning of conventional agriculture - - more careful and efficient farming with sensitive technologies - - will reduce or eliminate many undesirable effects of conventional agriculture. The other is that fundamental changes in agriculture are needed, requiring a major transformation of societal values. Those who believe that only fine-tuning is needed tend to argue that sustainable farming is inherently unprofitable. If widely adopted, it would not feed the world's expanding population as well as conventional agriculture. Those who see a need for more fundamental changes in conventional systems believe that sustainable farming, on the contrary, can be even more profitable than the conventional, especially when the calculation of profit counts all of the benefits and costs of farming. Further, resource conservation, protection of the environment, and farming in partnership with nature - - all requirements of sustainability - - will enhance, not reduce, global food production. Other issues, such as the connections between sustainable farming and the rest of the food and fiber system, and the implications of sustainability for rural communities and society as a whole, have yet to be addressed significantly.

Introduction In less than a decade, agricultural sustainability has become a popular code word at home and abroad. To most people, it seems to mean an agriculture that will continue to conserve natural resources and protect the environment indefinitely, enhance the health and safety of the public, and produce adequate quantities of food at a profit for farmers. Others extend the concept to include goals such as social justice and the safeguarding of animal welfare. However defined, a sustainable agriculture is generally regarded as an alternative to m o d e m industrialized, or conventional agriculture, an agriculture © 1993 Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. All rights reserved 0167-8809/93/$06.00


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described as highly specialized and capital intensive, heavily dependent upon synthetic chemicals and other off-farm inputs.

Why the interest in sustainability? The idea of sustainability, at least with regard to agriculture and natural resources, is not new. Throughout history, people have faced the challenge of balancing food production with protection of the environment. In recent times, interest in sustainability has risen periodically in response to environmental crises and health hazards, such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the illeffects of pesticides detailed in Rachel Carson's landmark book, Silent Spring (Carson, 1962 ). Highly publicized evidence, or fears, of ill-effects of conventional farming practices on food safety - - illustrated recently by the use of Alar on apples - - have intensified public interest in sustainability. After all, everyone eats. Problems associated with conventional farming are now widely recognized as hidden costs of modern industrialized farming, costs that until recently have been all but justified by the spectacular gains in food production during this century. The problems include the following: (1) Contamination of ground and surface water from agricultural chemicals and sediment; (2) Hazards to human and animal health from pesticides and feed additives; ( 3 ) Adverse effects of agricultural chemicals on food safety and quality; (4) Loss of the genetic diversity in plants and animals, a key to the sustainability of agriculture; (5) Destruction of wildlife, bees, and beneficial insects by pesticides; (6) Growing pest resistance to pesticides (exacerbating the effects noted above); (7) Reduced soil productivity due to soil erosion, compaction, and loss of soil organic matter; (8) Over-reliance on non-renewable resources; (9) Health and safety risks incurred by farm workers who apply potentially harmful chemicals. Chemicals are, perhaps, the cause of most of the public concern about conventional farming, due to a pervasive fear that chemical pesticides and fertilizers will cause cancer or other health hazards. Evidence exists to support the reality of that fear (National Research Council and Board on Agriculture, 1989, pp. 89-134). Lack of evidence, when it is reported, can lead people to think that the hazards have been exaggerated. For instance, a national survey of drinking water wells recently showed lower levels of chemical contamination in well water than had been suspected (US Environmental Protection Agency, 1990). The most serious problem due to chemicals may not be their direct effects, but rather the kind of farming they make possible, which in turn can have harmful consequences seemingly unrelated to chemicals. For example, synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizer permit farmers to grow corn or other crops on the same land year after year, factory style. While those practices

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often boost efficiency and output, they also invite environmental and economic risks of specialization, overdependence on off-farm purchased inputs, and the habit of 'formula farming'. Undesirable economic and social impacts of conventional farming were added to the above list of adverse effects of conventional agriculture in the 1980s - - and deserve much of the credit for putting sustainability on the national agenda. In that period, foreign demand for US farm products stagnated, crop prices sagged, land values plunged, and thousands of farmers were financially ruined. Though not due solely to the use of conventional farming practices, the financial crisis of the 1980s illustrated painfully what can happen if farmers rely on a few crops produced mainly for export, borrow too much to pay for the chemicals and other inputs used to produce those crops, and depend on the federal government to protect them when things go wrong. The problem, for many farmers, persists today. Related psychological and social consequences, though mentioned less often, are among the most insidious impacts of conventional agriculture. Personal stress on farm families due to declining or uncertain farm incomes, the persistent loss of family farms, and a steady deterioration of rural communities continue to take their toll. As a result, many farmers in the US today, rather than watching the sustainability movement from the sidelines, are leading it, forming and joining new organizations - - such as Practical Farmers of Iowa - - to test better farming ideas and to share their experiences using potentially sustainable practices. The choice and meaning of the term 'sustainable agriculture'

Sustainable agriculture is a popular term because it is general enough to appeal not only to people interested in an environmentally beneficial and healthful farming but also to those concerned with its economic and social dimensions. It also avoids the ambiguity and controversy that has often accompanied other terms, those used to emphasize different dimensions of sustainability or particular farming practices. Examples are 'organic', 'biological', 'ecological', 'reduced-input', 'low-input', 'regenerative', and the more encompassing term, 'alternative agriculture'. The concept of sustainable agriculture suggests not only a destination for agriculture but particular farming practices that could move agriculture toward that destination (with both ends and means). But neither characteristic lends itself to precise definition. As a destination, sustainability is like truth and justice - - concepts not readily captured in concise definitions. Nor can sustainable farming practices be defined easily, simply because no one can ever know precisely and finally which farming practices may be the most sustainable in every location and circumstance. True, common sense and experience will generate more and more answers


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over time. There is already wide agreement that sustainability is enhanced by substituting management, brainpower, and patience for many of the inputs now bought in bottles and bags. It is known that crop rotations can break pest cycles and restore soil nutrients. Growing crops and raising livestock can be equally vital. Livestock contribute manure and harvest feed and forage from rotation crops. Insects, weeds, and diseases can be controlled using biological, mechanical, and other non-chemical methods, or what is called integrated pest management. Modem soil and water conservation techniques are timetested components of a sustainable system. However, because sustainability means 'forever', and because good science requires it, the door must always be left open to new and better information on what could be the most sustainable combinations of practices. Many people, in fact, prefer to talk about the technical side of sustainable agriculture - - about the different kinds of practices that may conserve soil and water, protect the environment, and provide the farmer with a decent profit. Scientists, in particular, tend to think of the ends of sustainability as 'givens' and the role of science to determine how best to achieve them. For that reason, and because it is both difficult and unwise to try to define sustainable farming practices, people's beliefs and values will continue to play a critical role in determining what sustainability means and how it can and should be achieved. Current beliefs and values differ markedly. At one extreme is the view that conventional agriculture needs only to be fine-tuned. At the other extreme is the conviction that sustainability will not be attainable until conventional agriculture is essentially redesigned (MacRae et al., 1990 ). Those who believe that fine-tuning or modification will suffice give the following arguments: ( 1 ) Conventional agriculture is basically sound. More careful and efficient farming will ensure its sustainability, e.g. farmers should use only the amounts of fertilizer and pesticides actually needed. (2) No agriculture is sustainable if it is not first and foremost a profitable agriculture. Practices commonly recommended by proponents of sustainability are inherently unprofitable. (3) Let us not sacrifice the production gains achieved by conventional agriculture by cutting back on modem inputs and relying on the whims of nature. (4) New and sensitive technologies will be designed to correct whatever environmental, health, and safety problems might arise from the use of conventional farming practices. This view is still widely held by many people and organizations within the traditional agricultural community, such as the US Department of Agriculture, the land grant colleges of agriculture, farm and commodity organiza-

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tions, and agribusiness firms. Undoubtedly, together with many other citizens, these people are persuaded by the impressive gains in food production throughout this century that drastic changes in agriculture are not necessary. They have an abiding faith in technology. Continuing evidence of this view is seen in federal food, agricultural, and natural resource policies, as well as in public-supported research and education programs. In contrast, the view at the other extreme is supported as follows: ( 1 ) We cannot expect to have a sustainable agriculture unless all of us adopt a fundamentally different way of thinking about agriculture, which will require major changes in personal beliefs, values, and life styles (Hill, 1982, 1985; MacRae et al., 1990). (2) Resource conservation, environmental protection, and health and safety are just as important as profitable production. In the long run, they are not conflicting goals. The future productivity and profitability of farming will depend increasingly on measures taken from now on to conserve resources and protect the environment. (3) Soil erosion, pesticide pollution, and other adverse effects of conventional farming must be prevented from occurring, not continually covered up with bigger and bigger 'band-aids'. Instead of mixing farm chemicals away from the farm well, in case they spill, consider not using them at all. (4) The farm is an organism, not a factory. Nature is not something to be conquered. Nature and naturally occurring processes beneath and above the soil are allies contributing not only to agronomic sustainability but to economic profitability, due in large measure to the synergism of plants, animals, soil, and the farmer's stewardship that are too easily forgotten in conventional farming. (5) More careful and efficient farming must be encouraged, but only as a hopeful starting point on the long journey to sustainability. (6) Agricultural sustainability, if viewed only as sustainable farm production, is a partial or intermediate goal. The concept and its pursuit should extend beyond the farm gate to the rest of the food and fiber system. Social justice and equity should be added to the more widely recognized environmental and economic goals of sustainability. I subscribe to this view (although I would not qualify as a true practitioner). Although I cannot prove that attainment of agricultural sustainability is impossible by continually fine-tuning conventional agriculture, history and common sense tell me that fundamental changes, not just more careful and efficient farming, are essential. At the same time, I remain open to new information that could cause me to think differently.


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Two critical issues regarding agricultural sustainabUity Two issues in particular that continue to invite myths and misunderstandings are the profitability of sustainable farming and the adequacy of food production under a sustainable system.

Profitability of sustainablefarming The profitability of sustainable versus conventional farming is often the most contentious issue encountered when the subject of sustainability is discussed. Conventional agriculturalists point out that highly specialized, capital-intensive, chemical-intensive methods have been widely adopted, not only because they increase production but because they have been more profitable than practices now recommended by proponents of sustainability. To condemn current and more profitable methods would be to go back to hoes, hard labor, lower yields, and lower farm income. Unfortunately, such an interpretation was probably encouraged a few years ago, and innocently so, with the coining of the term 'low-input sustainable agriculture', or LISA, by the Congress and the US Department of Agriculture (Schaller, 1991 ). 'Low-input' was chosen partly to head offthe interpretation among agricultural groups that sustainable agriculture was just another name for chemical-free, or organic, farming. No one who suggested the term meant that farmers should simply cut back on all their inputs (which of course would lower output), but skeptics, especially farm chemical producers and distributors, were never sure. Proponents of sustainability respond to the claims, and fears, of conventional agriculturalists by explaining that even if a shift to sustainable practices were to result initially in lower total production from the farm, those practices generally involve lower costs and therefore potentially higher profits. The way in which profitability is calculated is really the basic problem. As currently defined and counted, profit or farm income automatically favors conventional agriculture and penalizes sustainable agriculture. This is because its calculation excludes many of the benefits of sustainable farming to farmers and the rest of society, as well as the costs associated with conventional farming, such as soil erosion and groundwater contamination. A recent study suggests that when the economic 'costs' of erosion are included in the profit equation, farming systems that conserve soil but which are less profitable than those that cause erosion will often be the more profitable of the two (Faeth et al., 1991 ). The basic meaning of profit must also be considered. In an unsustainable world, profit may well become almost an end in itself. Implicitly or not, activities are regarded as noble because they are profitable (Kristol, 1974). In a

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truly sustainable world, profit is pursued and respected more clearly as a means. Activities, including farming, are profitable because they are noble. It follows that the true economic advantages of sustainable agriculture would be more apparent if the meaning of profit and the way it is calculated were to move toward that concept.

Adequacy of food production Some observers feel that if agriculture is effectively redesigned to achieve sustainability, it may not be able to produce the amount of food the world needs to feed its rapidly growing population (Ruttan, 1988; York, 1990). They reason that global population, now just over 5 billion, is expected to grow to 8.5 billion by the Year 2025 (World Resources Institute and International Institute for Environment and Development, 1990). Most of the world's arable land is now in use. Farming systems believed to be potentially the most sustainable will require the use of much of the available land to produce inputs that are now manufactured and purchased off the farm. Also, it is not clear that crop yields under otherwise sustainable systems can consistently equal those of chemical-intensive agriculture. This reasoning clearly supports the argument for fine-tuning conventional agriculture. Proponents of agricultural sustainability disagree, citing evidence that sustainable yields can equal if not exceed, and be less variable than, those achieved using conventional methods (National Research Council and Board on Agriculture, 1989; Lee, 1991 ). Higher and more stable yields would also be expected to come with farmer experience, the development of cultivars that contribute to sustainability, and the availability of new information and other services for farmers using sustainable practices. Moreover, the future productivity of conventional farming could begin to decline precipitously and permanently just when the number of people to be fed in the world reaches its highest level. Adherents of sustainable agriculture also point out that those who question the ability of sustainable farmers to feed the world seldom consider the possibility that diets might change in ways that would reduce substantially the mounting pressure on available agricultural resources. Consumption of livestock products in the developed world today requires vast areas of land to produce animal feed and forage. In the US alone, about 4 out of 5 acres of 'agricultural land' are used for that purpose. Not all, but certainly much of that land could be used to produce food for direct human consumption. Fears of inadequate production also ignore the possibility of government policies and programs to reduce population growth rates in many parts of the world.


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Future directions

So far, the pursuit of agricultural sustainability in the US, as elsewhere, has been limited almost entirely to the search for potentially more sustainable farming practices. It has also focused on the crop and livestock enterprises that are currently the major enterprises in each producing area, rather than on both current and alternative enterprises. It addresses the partial goal of sustainable production, not the sustainability of the entire food and fiber system. The sustainable agriculture movement has had a good beginning. It should now recognize and embrace further dimensions of sustainability. For example, what are the connections between sustainable farming and the rest of the food and fiber system? If farmers adopt potentially sustainable practices, but the processing and transportation of food beyond the farm gate are highly industrialized and chemical-intensive in philosophy and fact, what does that say about the sustainability of agriculture as a whole? As one observer has put it, when you consider the energy inputs and costs in the distribution as well as production of food, you must ask harder questions. For instance, if you live on the East Coast, is it better to eat lettuce grown in California without any synthetic chemicals, or lettuce produced locally with those chemicals? Other challenging issues waiting to be addressed include the following. To what extent does sustainable farming increase the well-being of rural people and communities? Do rural communities and institutions enhance or impair the ability of farmers to adopt sustainable practices? Beyond that, what is the connection between agricultural and rural sustainability and the rest of society? A sustainable agriculture alone, cannot remedy problems such as injustice and inequity, but might it set an example that would help to open new doors to a more just and equitable society? And what does all of this mean for public policies and for research and education? Few other subjects afford so much to ponder.

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Lee, L.K., 1991. Reducing chemical use: farm level and consumer impacts. Working Paper, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, 17 pp. MacRae. R.J., Hill, S.B., Henning, J. and Bentley, A.J., 1990. Policies, programs, and regulations to support the transition to sustainable agriculture in Canada. Am. J. Alternative Agric., 5(2): 76-92. National Research Council, Board on Agriculture, 1989. Alternative Agriculture. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, pp. 89-134, 247-417. Ruttan, V.W., 1988. Commentary: Sustainability is not enough. Am. J. Alternative Agric., 3 (2 and 3): 128-130. Schaller, N., 1991. Background and status of the low-input sustainable agriculture program. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education in the Field, A Proceedings, National Research Council, Board on Agriculture, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, pp. 2231. US Environmental Protection Agency, 1990. National survey of pesticides in drinking water wells. Phase I Report, EPA 570/9-90-015, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC. World Resources Institute and International Institute for Environment and Development, 1990. World resources 1990-91, Basic Books, New York, pp. 1 and 8. York, E.T., 1990. Sustainable agriculture systems. Speech presented at Phillip C. Hamm Memorial Lecture, University of Minnesota, April 12, 1990, 14 pp.