What is sustainable agriculture? What does it all really mean?

All this week on Table Talk, we are talking sustainability. We will start to unpack the questions:

Will future generations be able to meet their own needs? 

Is my farming system sustainable?

In this first blog, we ask: What is sustainable agriculture? What does it all really mean?


Farmers are environment stewards of the land and often, the staunchest animal advocates around, but the word ‘sustainable’ still remains on the periphery in many farming conversations. To be sustainable doesn’t mean living outside the grid or returning to practices of the pre-industrial. Rather, it’s using new knowledge, research and technical developments to ensure we adapt our practices for the future.

Sustainable farming can mean so many different things to different people. It can mean conventional farming that drives efficiencies and productivity, or it can refer to sustainable production systems such as biological, organic, permaculture, agroecology or holistic management styles of farming.

The Australian Government has produced an interesting report that looks at Australian Farming and Agriculture over the last 200 years.

They write that:

“There have been many changes in farming methods over the last 200 years and Australian farmers have had to be adaptable as well as resilient and inventive. The challenges of access to fresh water, the legacy of high amounts of fertilisers, massive clearing, over grazing, a tyranny of distance, transport costs and feral animals, have tested Australian farmers to their limits.

In response, farming has become more mechanised and reliant on technologies, as well as holistic as it seeks to become more sustainable”.

What definitions exist around sustainable agriculture?

However, before we delve further into what the term “sustainable agriculture” means at a practical level, perhaps we need to first get some clear definition on the terms being used in the discussion.

There are no universally agreed definitions on sustainability , but for our purposes we define the following:

Agriculture

  • The word agriculture comes from the Latin words ager, means the soil & cultura, means cultivation.“Agriculture can be defined as the cultivation and/or production of crop plants or livestock products.”

Sustainability

  • Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.

Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work:

  • a healthy environment
  • economic profitability
  • and social and economic equity

In the report, “What is sustainable agriculture?” they discuss that environmental sustainability in agriculture means good stewardship of the natural systems and resources that farms rely on. Among other things, this involves:

  • Building and maintaining healthy soil
  • Managing water wisely
  • Minimizing air, water, and climate pollution
  • Promoting biodiversity.

What is holistic agriculture?

A  definition of holistic states:

  • (from a Greek word meaning all, whole, entire, total) in agriculture means a systems thinking approach to managing resources.
  • related to the idea that things should be studied as a whole and not just as a sum of their parts.

Holistic agriculture has been explained as:

“The four cornerstones of managing holistically are financial planning, grazing planning, land planning and biological monitoring.” – Holistic Management International

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a broad term that moves beyond the concept of sustainability. It represents a move away from conventional and high input farming techniques that degrade the quality of the soil. The movement aims to restore the fertility of the soil through a range of methods.

Charles Eisenstein wrote in the Guardian, “First, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature, not dominate it… Second, regenerative agriculture is a departure from linear thinking and its control of variables through mechanical and chemical means. It values the diversity of polycultures, in which animals and plants form a complex, symbiotic, robust system. Third, regenerative agriculture seeks to address the deep basis of ecological health: the soil. It sees low fertility, runoff and other problems as symptoms, not the root problem.”

“Regenerative agriculture is any kind of farming that enables the restorative capacity of the earth. Regenerative agriculture preserves or improves the fertility of the soil, creates an abundance of food and other agricultural products, contributes to vibrant communities and equitable economies, and respects the ecology of the natural world. Fertile soil helps create nourishing food and, in turn, healthy people and robust communities.” — Farmers without Borders

“Regenerative agriculture involves management processes that reclaim and build natural
biological function in the soil and environment to provide a buffer or “insurance policy” against management practices or natural events that deplete the system.” — Michael Inwood (2011 Nuffield Scholar)

Charles de Liedekerke, chief executive and founder of Soil Capital, spoke to Agri Investor: “We believe that today, regenerative agriculture can be more profitable than the agro-industrial model for land managers, investors, and society at large. Farmers now have the ability to reduce their cost structure while maintaining or increasing yields and resilience to their land. This translates into better operational cash flows, but also into capital appreciation for the land.”

To read about some of the economic benefits associated with regenerative farming, refer to the Soils for Life website.

What is meant by the term ‘Industrial agriculture”?

In comparison, if we look at the definitions for Industrial agriculture, we can compare the different methods of farming:

Industrial Agriculture:

  • is a form of farming that refers to the industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and crops.
  • the methods of industrial agriculture are technoscientific, economic, and political.
  • is based on large-scale monoculture farming (the practice of growing single crops intensively on a very large scale) and has become the dominant agricultural method in some places/countries. Corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice are all commonly grown this way in the United States.
  • relies heavily on chemical inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

The term “Industrial Agriculture” is most common in the United States. Agriculture economist John Ikerd of the University of Missouri. He says the four pillars of industrial paradigms are:

  • Specialization
  • Simplification
  • Routinization
  • Mechanization

In this method of farming,  fertilisers are needed because growing the same plant (and nothing else) in the same place year after year quickly depletes the nutrients that the plant relies on, and these nutrients have to be replenished somehow. The pesticides are needed because monoculture fields are highly attractive to certain weeds and insect pests (Industrial Agriculture – USCUSA).


There is no wrong or right here — just the opportunity to become more knowledgeable about different systems and to continuously improve what we are all doing.

As Ken Baldry from Wallendbeen NSW stated in Target 100:

We are custodians over a fair part of Australia and therefore we need to leave it in a better state than we found it – Ken Baldry (Wallendeen, NSW)

In our next post, we will look more deeply into more practical sustainable agriculture management approaches.