What is Sustainable Agriculture?
having a site-specific application that will,
over the long term:
The term 'sustainability' itself has not been
defined universally by natural and social scien-
tists, thus each group has a unique perspective
of what it means and, therefore, how it should
be studied (Common and Perrings, 1992). In a
natural science perspective, 'sustainability'
generally focuses research on identifying the
balance and renewability of natural systems.
In economics, however, 'sustainability' is viewed
as a temporal constraint on decision-making.
Economic studies of 'sustainability' focus
on the 'fairness' of outcomes between periods
(Foy, 1990; Toman, 1994). For example, the
simplest of these economic models evaluate
outcomes between the present and future gen-
erations. One outcome of economic assess-
ments of sustainability has been the
development of the 'sustainability criterion'.
The criterion suggests that, at a minimum,
future generations should be left no worse off
than current generations (Tietenberg, 2003).
Combining the perspectives of natural and
social scientists, and especially economists,
means that, together, these groups must iden-
tify and/or create and help the industry select
agricultural production systems that satisfy
present and future needs.
The definition of the term 'sustainable
agriculture' is still evolving. A computer
search for the definition generates at least one
statement for each of the natural and social
sciences trying to address the challenge. Even
on the campuses of the numerous universities
with 'centres' or 'institutes' or 'programmes'
focusing on sustainable agriculture, there are
multiple definitions being used by different
groups or departments. Unfortunately, scien-
tists tend to focus narrowly within their disci-
pline and sustainability requires a broad,
The US Congress tried to come to the res-
cue in 1990. They defined sustainable agricul-
ture in the 1990 Farm Bill. Given that federal
funding is a substantial source for agricultural
research at present, it would be wise for all
natural and social scientists to become famil-
iar with the specifics of that definition. Under
that law (US Congress, 1990), 'the term sus-
tainable agriculture means an integrated sys-
tem of plant and animal production practices
satisfy human food and fiber needs;
enhance environmental quality and the
natural resource base upon which the agri-
cultural economy depends;
make the most efficient use of non-
renewable resources and on-farm resources
and integrate, where appropriate, natural
biological cycles and controls;
sustain the economic viability of farm
enhance the quality of life for farmers and
society as a whole.'
Two things should catch the eye about this defi-
nition of sustainable agriculture. The first
theme in the definition is that the five bulleted
points outline tasks that require both natural
and social scientists to accomplish. The first bul-
leted point requires social scientists to identify
the 'needs' and natural scientists to create the
systems necessary to produce the output sus-
tainably. The second bullet point is nearly all
natural science, except that environmental and
resource economists might contribute in the
discussions of regulatory and market frame-
works. The third point involves economists to
identify 'efficient' uses and natural scientists to
fulfil the remainder of the tasks. The fourth
point is all economics. The final point is again a
combination of natural and social science tasks.
Thus, no scientific discipline has a monopoly on
finding a path to the goal - it must be a multidis-
The second theme is that 'economic viability'
(or sustainability) is a subset of the definition.
Economic sustainability is key in identifying
what will happen: it is a necessary, but not suffi-
cient, condition for achieving the goal of a sus-
tainable agriculture. This means a significant
contribution to be made by economists is to eval-
uate the profitability of agricultural operations,
not only in monetary amounts, but more impor-
tantly in terms of return on investment so as to
facilitate comparisons between alternative sys-
tems developed by natural scientists. Part of this
contribution will be analysing the markets in
which profitability is determined. The structure
of markets for agricultural outputs is critical in
the search for a sustainable agriculture, as
explained later in this chapter.