Some terms defy definition. “Sustainable agriculture” has become one of them. In such a quickly changing world, can anything be sustainable? What do we want to sustain? How can we implement such a nebulous goal? Is it too late? With the contradictions and questions have come a hard look at our present food production system and thoughtful evaluations of its future. If nothing else, the term “sustainable agriculture” has provided “talking points,” a sense of direction, and an urgency, that has sparked much excitement and innovative thinking in the agricultural world.
The word “sustain,” from the Latin sustinere (sus-, from below and tenere, to hold), to keep in existence or maintain, implies long-term support or permanence. As it pertains to agriculture, sustainable describes farming systems that are “capable of maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems... must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound.” [John Ikerd, as quoted by Richard Duesterhaus in "Sustainability's Promise," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (Jan.-Feb. 1990) 45(1): p.4. NAL Call # 56.8 J822]
Sustainable agriculture was addressed by Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill [Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603 (Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1990) NAL Call # KF1692.A31 1990]. Under that law, “the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
satisfy human food and fiber needs
enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
sustain the economic viability of farm operations
enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
As more parties sign on to the sustainable agriculture effort, perceptions about what defines sustainability in agriculture have multiplied. AFSIC's publication, Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms, http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/terms/srb9902.shtml strives to illustrate the commonality and some of the controversy that defining such a goal entails, and it includes brief descriptions of the methodologies and practices currently associated with sustainable agriculture.
“In popular literature, sustainable agriculture generally is presented as a new phenomenon. Wes Jackson is credited with the first publication of the expression in his New Roots for Agriculture (1980), and the term didn’t emerge in popular usage until the late 1980s.” (“A Brief History of Sustainable Agriculture,” by Fred Kirschenmann, in The Networker, vol. 9, no. 2, March 2004.) However, the idea of agricultural sustainability – stewarding the food production resource base for use of future generations – is not a new phenomenon.
What standards are available for sustainable agriculture?
“[C]onsumers are increasingly demanding on the ethical dimension of food quality. This relates to the process of production and trade and its broad impacts on society and the environment. It includes a wide range of social, environmental or cultural issues such as the treatment of workers, a fair return to producers, environmental impacts and animal welfare.” [Value-adding standards in the North American food market: Trade opportunities in certified products for developing countries by Alice Byers and Pascal Liu. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the Untied Nations, Rome, 2008), http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a1585e/a1585e00.htm, NAL Call no. TP372.6 .B94 2008] Guidelines about what specific practices meet long-term environmental, economic and social goals and constitute sustainable agriculture is still under debate. However, a handful of groups have attempted to develop standards and/or provide certification services based upon their own guidelines.
Food Alliance http://foodalliance.org/
A non-profit organization that has developed sustainable agricultural practices standards and operates a voluntary certification program based on those standards.
Sustainable Agriculture Standards for Farm Audits
Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) Secretariat http://sanstandards.org/sitio/
The Sustainable Agriculture Network Standards or SAN standards are the basis for Rainforest Alliance certification
Where are the best sustainable agriculture research and information sources?
Databases and other online information portals may contain book and article citations and abstracts, research project descriptions, full-text documents and spreadsheets, organizational contact information, plant and animal production information and/or other kinds of data. The majority provide free online access and downloading.
How can I find sustainable agriculture people and organizations?
People and organizations are essential information sources for sustainable agriculture. Contacting your state or county Cooperative Extension Service is a good place to begin the search for helpful information and contacts at the local level. In addition to general agricultural information, each state Extension office has a designated Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator. Non-profit, farmer and trade organizations may also prove invaluable.
State Sustainable Agriculture Coordinators. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)
Each coordinator facilitates a statewide training program in sustainable agriculture concepts and systems for field employees. Coordinators also serve as a point of contact for activities and information about sustainable agriculture specific to their states. http://www.sare.org/State-Programs/State-Coordinator-Contact-Information
Where can I explore educational and career opportunities?
Learning, careeer and job opportunities related to sustainable agriculture become more numerous every year.
Educational and Training Opportunities in Sustainable Agriculture, 20th edition. Compiled by Becky Thompson, AFSIC, June 2012
Directory of U.S., Canadian and international programs, curricula, classes, distance learning and field days at academic institutions and non-profit organizations. http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/edtr/
SANET-MG. Sustainable Agriculture Network.
Job opportunities are often listed with the Sustainable Agriculture Network's e-mail discussion group, SANET-MG. To check recent archives/messages, go to http://lists.sare.org/archives/sanet-mg.html; Select "Search the archives since July 2000." Use keywords like "position" or "intern" or "internship," or simply browse the past 2 to 3 months worth of messages. You may also subscribe to the list via this site.
Federal Conservation Resources for Sustainable Farming and Ranching
ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, 2010
This publication offers an overview of the major federal conservation programs that provide resources for farmers and ranchers to enhance and maintain sustainable farming and ranching practices. https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=280