farm fields

What Is Sustainable Agriculture?

What does it mean for agriculture to be sustainable? Farmers, consumers, environmentalists: They all have their ideas on sustainability, but what does it really mean? Throughout the next two weeks, Andy and Lindsay sort out the differences as they talk about their own definitions of sustainability.

The Argument Lindsay Hotmire

What is sustainable agriculture?

It’s a question that our generation has awakened to, but it is not a new discussion to the agricultural community. They have been asking this question since the early days of hunting and gathering.

Farming has a long, long history of sustainability. To deny this would simply be irresponsibly sensational. As farmers work the land, most understand that what they put into the land determines what they get out of the land, but as we’ve gotten further away from the idealized notion of farming—the type where farmers define simplicity and rural community—the idea of sustainability becomes more clouded.

A brief history

Since the early 1900s, the farming industry has seen great loss. In the twenty-first century, the nation lost 330 farmers every single week. Today, 50 percent of all U.S. farmers are between the ages of 45 and 65, and these statistics give rise to a startling question: Who is raising our food?

More than likely, it isn’t the farmer who still raises hogs, chickens and cattle on his farm. Those days disappeared by the mid-1900s.  In the 1930s, one farmer could feed just five families, requiring one out of every three households to be involved in the agricultural sector. Today, farming efficiency touts its success with the numbers: Just two percent of our nation’s workforce are farmers, feeding a world population that exceeds 6 billion people.

Who are these farmers that are able to meet the demands of the world’s appetite? Tyson, Perdue, Cargill, Smithfield—corporations that produce 90 percent of our nation’s poultry supply, 80 percent of our cattle, and nearly 70 percent of hogs. They have turned farming into industry, and as a result, “sustainability” has been corporatized, defined by what’s efficient rather than what is best for consumers and communities.

“Sustainability,” redefined

  • Sustainability only takes from the land that which it can use and that which it can put back.

It doesn’t over apply manure when the soil doesn’t need the nutrients.  It doesn’t look at the land as a toxic dump site when manure lagoons are overflowing with liquid animal waste. Applied at rates far beyond what the land can absorb, much of the 1 million US short tons of dry livestock matter produced each day within our nation’s livestock farms makes its way onto our crop land and inevitably runs off into over 173,000 miles of our national waterways. The Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie and Grand Lake St. Marys stand as the testament graves of corporate agriculture’s pollution, each filled with visible dead zones and areas too toxic to even permit human access.

  • Sustainability prioritizes clean air and water over cheap food.

We eat cheap. And throughout the last thirty years, the cost of food has actually decreased. By 2011, American’s spent 11 percent of their annual income on food. To put this into proper comparison, China spent 21 percent. Egypt spent 44 percent.

This percentage is the poster child for the American agriculture. And apparently, they’re doing their job inarguably well, for well over a third of all Americans eat so well that they are obese.

  • Sustainability invests in the communities around it, preserving the livelihood, the health, and the welfare of rural neighbors.

In the 1940s, a US Senate Special Committee commissioned Walter Goldschmidt to study the impacts of concentrated economic power on small rural communities. Goldschmidt’s study, Small Business and the Community, focused on two small California towns and identified corporate agriculture as a primary culprit in negatively influencing rural communities’ economic and social structures. In response, the USDA closed Goldschmidt’s sponsoring agency, muting the results of his study until the 1970s, and by then, the proliferation of factory farming was well on its way.

Since then, however, sociologists have relied upon Goldschmidt’s theories when examining the impacts of industrialized agriculture upon communities, and 82 percent of all studies completed since the 1940s have revealed the same story: industrialized agriculture does not sustain rural communities. It disillusions perceptions of the democratic process; it concentrates corporate power in the hands of a few; it diminishes environmental quality, polluting the air and water; and it threatens the rural social structure so heavily dependent upon neighbor relationships.

  • Sustainability seeks to manage, not control.

Author Peter Kaminsky sums it up best when he writes in his essay, “The Good Farmer: An Agrarian Approach to Animal Agriculture,” that

Industry is about qualification, standardization, risk management. It consumes resources and therefore depletes them. The agrarian approach, on the other hand, is about managing resources sustainably, creating while consuming, renewing while reaping. There are no factories . . . that have been around for five hundred years, yet there is land the world over that has been managed agriculturally for hundreds if not thousands of years: the vineyards of France, the cattle-supporting pampas of Argentina, the oak savannas of western Spain, the rice paddies of Indochina. The industrial model seeks to control nature; the agrarian seeks to manage it. The former consumes more and more resources to maintain output; the latter can go on producing forever.

“The world needs to eat,” and “Food should be cheap,” should never be viable reasons to deplete the environment and social structures around us. As we struggle to comprehend how we are going to feed an ever-growing population, we must always move forward with a collective conscience—one ruled by the precepts of a holistic idea of sustainability: community, environment, world. I think that the farming community is awakening to this idea, but it is an awakening that requires an evaluation of current practices and a willingness to change detrimental methods—and this means that that the American consumer must recognize that cheap food  has come with an environmental and societal price tag that we can no longer afford to pay.

Kaminsky, Peter.“The Good Farmer: An Agrarian Approach to Animal Agriculture.” In The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, edited by Daniel Imhoff (University of California Press, 2010), 312-313.
Imhoff,Daniel. “Introduction: Extinction Is Forever.” In The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, edited by Daniel Imhoff (University of California Press, 2010), 162.
Lyson, Thomas A., Robert J. Torres, and Rick Welsh.“Scale of Agricultural Production,Civic Engagement, and Community Welfare.” Social Forces 80, no. 1 (2001): 311-327.
Labao, Linda and Curtis Stofferahn. “The Community Effects of Industrialized Farming: Social Science Research and Challenges to Corporate Farming Laws.” Agriculture and Human Values 25 (2008): 228.
Labao,Linda and Katherine Meyer. "The Great Agricultural Transition: Crisis, Change, and Social Consequences of Twentieth Century US Farming." Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 103-24.
Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP). “Environmental Impact of Industrial Farm Animal Production.”

The Rebuttal Andy Kleinschmidt

I'll respond to Lindsay's post on sustainable agriculture and I'll also give my response to the question 'What is sustainable agriculture?'. First, I could not agree more with Lindsay's comment "Farming has a long, long history of sustainability. To deny this would simply be irresponsibly sensational."

I am a former Extension Faculty with a land-grant univeristy and while employed in Extension I used resources from SARE.  SARE, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, administers a competitive grants program for farmers supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture. I encourage you to take a look at the website and the programs offered I like SARE’s approach to discussing  sustainable agriculture. As a farm owner and a member of the agriculture community, I find that SARE's presentation of sustainable agriculture aligns with my views on sustainable agriculture.

SARE calls strategies to produce food sustainably the '3 Pillars of Sustainability', and they are:

  • Profit over the long term.

  • Stewardship of our nation's land, air and water

  • Quality of Life for farmers, ranchers and their communities

I am really glad to see SARE include profit in their pillars of sustainability. It sends a message that making a profit is part of a sustainability strategy. If the farm is not profitable, then the farm is not sustainable. I don’t often hear discussions that include profit and sustainable agriculture together, but I think profit should be included in the discussion. Equally important to me are stewardship of resources and improving quality of life for farmers and their communities. Preserving the soil and water resource is critical because those resources sustain the farm.

There are some great examples of sustainable agriculture

Here's another example:


Sustainable agriculture occurs broadly and all over the world. Sustainable agriculture occurs everyday on every farm and in so many different ways, some small and some not so small. Sustainable agriculture isn't constrained to a single practice and there are many different approaches to achieve sustainability on the farm.

Lindsay indicated that more than likely it isn’t the farmer who still raises hogs, chickens and cattle on his or her farm. I disagree on this point, farmers are still raising livestock today. Take a look at this video of Chris Chinn discussing her family farm operation. chris_chinn

Modern agriculture uses contracts to produce everything from hogs to popcorn. The companies Lindsay mentions - Tyson, Perdue, Cargill, Smithfield - offer to pay farmers for producing chickens, hogs, etc in the form of a contract. Farmers chose whether or not they want to accept the arrangement. 

I agree with Lindsay that we should continue to consider ideas of sustainability that include community, environment and the world.  I respectfully disagree with her argument that there is some sort of environmental price tag to pay for our food. Farmers are using practices that reduce soil erosion and using technologies that reduce crop water needs. Lindsay is spot on with her statement about not depleting the environment around us for the sake of producing food.

The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at University of Minnesota provides a statement which I'll use to close: "Developing sustainable agriculture systems means finding site-specific solutions in an evolving system of management that is site- and manager-specific. Sustainable agriculture practices will be different for every farm and every community." 

The bottom line is that sustainable agriculture can include many technologies and practices and can be applied to large farms as well as small farms.

I appreciate Lindsay's viewpoint and am glad she shared it in the article above.

SARE Sustainable agriculture

The Final Remarks Lindsay Hotmire

It’s difficult to believe that the practices we use as humans might actually be harmful to the Earth on which we live. For many, admitting this places us in a camp where we do not want to be aligned. It’s the Frankenstein created by alarmist language, spoken by the chicken littles on both sides of debate who have screamed for far too long that the sky is falling with nothing more than biased research as their evidence.

But when discussing the farmer’s influence on the environment, the truth of the matter is that farming practices have long harmed the environment. In fact, "The worst thing for the environment is farming," according to Pamela Ronald, a geneticist at the University of California, Davis, and author of the newly released book “Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.”  Staunchly on the side of biotechnology, Ronald has spent the last two decades developing rice strains that can stand up to immense flooding. “It doesn’t matter if it’s organic,” she says. “You [still] have to go in and destroy everything.So let’s be effecient. Let’s conserve. Let’s be smart about it.”

Many within the agricultural world, by the way, agree with her assessment. Farming, by nature, works against the very environment it seeks to protect.

Is there an environmental price tag to our cheap food? You decide.

Over twenty years ago, it was estimated that since WWII, poor farming practices were solely responsible for damaging 550 million hectacres of our nation’s farmland. To put it in perspective, that’s nearly 40 percent of all available farmland in use today. America’s farmers learned a difficult lesson about Mother Nature during the Dust Bowl catastrophe: She can only be manipulated so far until she simply stops giving. Massive restoration projects had to be undertaken as a result of the American farmer’s thirst for profit and efficiency, and even today, farmers throughout the Great Plains face an impending water crisis as the Ogallala Aquifer beneath them fails to recharge year after year.

Environmentally, the costs of conventional farming practices have been great.

  • 70 percent of all major fish species have been threatened or extinguished due to agricultural practices according to a Food and Agriculture Organization estimate.

  • More than 90 percent of all US corn farmers use herbicides. Atrazine, the most favored herbicide among corn farmers, is a major pollutant to our nation’s streams and ground water--over 173,000 miles of our national waterways, to be exact.

  • The estimated environmental and health care costs associated with regulated pesticide use exceeds $12 billion each and every year.

  • The National Research Council reports that the costs of excessive fertilizer use is $2.5 billion/year.

  • The costs of public and environmental health losses associated with soil erosion today still exceeds $45 billion dollars.

  • The IPCC attributes 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions to large scale livestock farms.

  • Two-thirds of all water use worldwide is attributed to agriculture. And many of those practices result in a 50 percent loss of water applied to irrigated crops. To put it bluntly, we are throwing our water away.

  • Antibiotic resistance in humans is increasing, and many experts point to the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. 80 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the US are used by livestock. While there’s much to unpack about this percentage, the truth is that we are overmedicating our food supply.

  • And finally, to answer Andy’s remark regarding large corporations paying farmers to raise our food, just 2 out of 100 people are farmers in today’s market (compared to 1 out of 3 in the early 1900s). Our nation’s farmers are getting older, with the average age ranging from 45 - 65. When corporations begin to dominate the world’s food supply, we face great concerns of ethics, exploitation, and science, and many farmers do not “choose” to enter into contracts with these corporations out of their own will. Rather, it’s a matter of survival, much like the small guy choosing to sell to Amazon rather than attempt to compete on his own. (More on this topic in a future post.)

As the world continues to grow, we have to continue to answer some very tough questions about food production and efficiency, for hungry bellies will not fall quiet simply because we’ve run out of land. It is true when Andy says that “sustainable agriculture occurs broadly and all over the world,” but it is not occurring “on every farm,” as he contends. We have depleted our earth’s resources. Fossil fuels are not so readily abundant. Water is not flowing as freely, so by necessity, we are being forced to search out new advancements in technology and agriculture.

We cannot continue to uphold the nation’s farmers up as great environmental stewards when the data paints a different picture altogether. Many in the agricultural community are realizing this, but until it becomes a collective vision, until the corporations that dominate the world’s table hold profit beneath genuine sustainability, our communities and the environments that sustain them will continue to degrade.

Peter R. Hobbs, Ken Sayre and Raj Gupta, “The Role of Conservation Agriculture in Sustainable Agriculture,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences , Vol. 363, No. 1491, Sustainable Agriculture I (Feb. 12, 2008): 543-555.
Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence and Polly Walker, “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture,” Environmental Health Perspectives , Vol. 110, No. 5 (May, 2002): 445-456.
David Pimenthel, Paul Hepperly, James Hanson, David Douds, and Rita Seidel, “Environmental, Energetic, and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems,” BioScience , Vol. 55, No. 7 (July 2005): 573-582.

2 thoughts on “What Is Sustainable Agriculture?

  1. From Wikipedia-In ecology, sustainability is how biological systems endure and remain diverse and productive. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has ecological, economic, political and cultural dimensions. Sustainability requires the reconciliation of these environmental, social equity and economic demands – also referred to as the “three pillars” of sustainability or the 3 Es.

    Removing all emotion from the argument, is the above definition the one that we should be using to answer this question. If so, are we meeting that standard? If not, what definition should we be using?

    Putting emotion back in, how could we possible look at the current system and the results that the last 50 years have yielded and think that this is sustainable?

    1. “Sustainability requires the RECONCILIATION of these environmental, social equity and economic demands. . . ” I think that this is exactly what we ought to be looking at, for when we compartmentalize just one facet of sustainability, we wind up exploiting something else, and this is EXACTLY what I think has been happening for AT LEAST the last 70 years. Here’s a question: Is the fact that we are still wondering how in the world we’re going to feed a growing population evidence of unsustainable practices?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *