Sustainable agriculture: balancing profits and human and natural resources (Research Brief #1)
Posted March 1992
What is sustainable agriculture, and why is it important?
In recent years, many people, both rural and urban residents, have become concerned that the agricultural practices used during the past 30 to 40 years may be damaging the environment and reducing food quality.
Many people also worry that the economic strength and vigor of rural families and communities may decline unless farmers and communities can develop profitable farm and related non-farm activities. These concerns have prompted interest and discussion about sustainable agriculture.
A variety of labels have emerged over the past several years that attempt to classify sustainable agriculture. These include alternative, sustainable, low-input, regenerative, biodynamic, and agroecological agriculture. Despite the different labels, they tend to focus on physical or biological relationships.
The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) uses a broader definition that includes not only physical and biological relationships, but social and economic relationships as well. The CIAS defines sustainable agriculture as farming systems and government policies that develop long-term positive impacts on the following: agricultural profitability; environmental quality; food sufficiency, quality and affordability; and rural family and community vitality.
Simply stated, sustainable agriculture focuses on farmers’ profit in the short run, while preserving rural communities and natural resources in the long run. As you can see, the center’s definition involves much more than farming.
Differences in farm size, climate, soil type, and other local conditions do not allow us to develop general solutions that every farmer can use to achieve a balance between profitability and human and natural resources. But, certain principles exist that farmers, scientists, and policy-makers can pursue to help farmers find solutions that fit their specific circumstances.
Some Ways to Achieve a More Sustainable Agriculture
- Identify, evaluate, and develop alternatives to those current farm practices that have the greatest potential to harm the environment or the health of farmers or consumers.
- Several practices that address environmental concerns already exist. Contour planting, minimal tillage systems, cover crops, crop rotation, and perennial grasses can reduce soil erosion and improve profitability. Concerned farmers also incorporate hedgerows, windbreaks, and grass borders into their field designs to reduce wind erosion and create wildlife habitat.
Develop methods that enable farmers to effectively use their farms’ and their families’ internal resources.
- Many sustainable agriculture practices substitute on-farm resources and management for purchased inputs. Increasingly, some farmers use crop rotation systems, animal manures, and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil fertility and productivity.
- Develop profitability strategies that focus on diversified farming systems that effectively use both external and internal inputs and assist farmers creatively marketing their goods. If adequate management and labor resources exist, diversification reduces financial risk. Diversification hedges against drought and economic pressures from increased input costs, commodity price declines, and regulations that affect the supply of certain commodities.
- Diversified farm strategies may also include premium-prices products, such as organic or superior quality products. In other words, the focus may be on higher quality products that are more valuable as opposed to focusing on simply increasing production. A diversified strategy also seeks to access local, regional, national, and international markets. Develop policies that maintain a diversified farm structure and rejuvenate rural communities.
- This is a “big picture” perspective of sustainable agriculture. A diversified agricultural structure includes part-time farmers, full-time farmers, single-family farmers, and larger multi-family partnerships or cooperatives. A diversified rural community structure also focuses on creating and maintaining non-farm enterprises that complement farm families’ rhythms and needs for off-farm employment featuring well-paying jobs and adequate benefits. The idea is to build both income and an “infrastructure” of business and community services.
Most people in agriculture are concerned about soil erosion, surface water contamination, ground water pollution and depletion, food quality, and reductions in wildlife populations. Research, education and policy initiatives are needed for long-term solutions to these problems.
For more information, contact:
Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems
146 Agriculture Hall 1450 Linden Drive
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI 53706
Published as Research Brief #1