Sustainable Agriculture

Course Directory Glossary

Definitions ] Sustainable Development ] Indicators of Sustainable Development ] [ Sustainable Agriculture ] Integrated Systems ]

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Useful links related to sustainable agriculture

Crop assurance

Linking Environment and Farming

Soil Association

The little red tractor standard

Sustain :The alliance for safe food

DEFRA on sustainable agriculture

Organic gardening


What is sustainable agriculture?

There is no universally accepted definition of sustainable agriculture. The DEFRA definition, which lies behind thinking in current agricultural policy is:


Ensuring the continuing availability to the consumer of adequate supplies of, wholesome , varied and reasonably priced food, produced within accordance with generally accepted environmental and social standards


Maintaining a flexible and competitive industry which contributes to  an economically viable rural society


Ensuring effective protection of the environment and prudent use of natural resources


Conserving and enhancing the landscape, wildlife, cultural and archaeological value of agricultural land


Respecting a high level of animal welfare

The United States Sustainable agriculture Network defined sustainable agriculture thus: Sustainable agriculture refers to an agricultural production and distribution system that: 


Achieves the integration of natural biological cycles and controls, 


Protects and renews soil fertility and the natural resource base 


Optimises the management and use of on-farm resources 


Reduces the use of non-renewable resources and purchased production inputs


Provides an adequate and dependable farm income


Promotes opportunity in family farming and farm communities


Minimizes adverse impacts on health, safety, wildlife, water quality and the environment

Pause for thought.......Compare the British and American definitions of sustainable agriculture, although they are relatively similar, what do you notice in relation to the farming community?

Conway and Barbier (1990) defined sustainable agriculture as:

The ability to maintain productivity, whether of a field, farm or nation, in the face of stress or shock (such as increasing salinity, or erosion, or debt, or a new pest, or a rare drought or a sudden massive increase in input prices).

Spedding (1994) outlined six essential attributes for future agricultural systems:

  1. They should be highly productive, of safe, high quality products (within identified constraints, such as those listed below)

  2. They should be physically sustainable, i.e. use physical resources at rates or in ways which allow adequate long term development

  3. They should be biologically sustainable (i.e. the biological organisms and processes on which they depend must be sustainable in the long term) - this could encompass the avoidance of internal  pollution such as the build up of heavy metals

  4. They should satisfy agreed standards for human and animal welfare

  5. They should not give rise to unacceptable pollution, by products or effects, including visual ones

  6. They must be profitable (since they would not be practiced if they were not) - this also assumes that the products are wanted (otherwise there will be no demand and the business will collapse)  

Pause for thought.......Future systems should satisfy agreed standards (4), what factors would effect these agreed standards on a national level?

Does sustainable agriculture necessarily mean welfare friendly (left). Is sustainable cropping possible using modern techniques (right)

Indicators of Agricultural sustainability

Agricultural indicators provide a means of measuring the social, economic and environmental impacts of agriculture and to help assess the effectiveness of policies within the agricultural sector. Within Government (local and national) the indicators will :


In time, track changes of the impacts of UK agriculture and, where possible, show how agriculture is becoming more or less sustainable


Provide policy makers with a tool to help assess the social, economic and environmental consequences of their policies, identify the need for new policies and appraise policy options


Raise awareness of the environmental impacts of agriculture and its contribution to sustainable development


More effectively influence and contribute to the international debate about indicators and sustainability targets


The agricultural sector should not be viewed in isolation from other sectors of the economy. The indicators, therefore take into account the four key objectives identified by the governments sustainable development strategy:


  1. Social progress which recognizes the needs of everyone

  2. Effective protection of the environment

  3. Prudent use of natural resources

  4. Maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment




Summary of list of indicators for Sustainable Agriculture

A.   Agriculture within the rural economy and society

Area Indicator

Structure of the agriculture industry

1. Agricultural assets & liabilities
2. Age of farmers
3. Percentage of holdings that are tenanted
Farm financial resources 4. EU Producer Support estimate (PSE)
5. Agri-environment payments to farmers
6. Total income from farming
7. Average earnings of agricultural workers
Agricultural productivity 8. Agricultural productivity
Agricultural employment 9. Agricultural employment

B.   Farm management systems

Management 10. Adoption of farm management systems
Organic farming 11. Area converted to organic farming
Codes of practice 12 Knowledge of codes of agricultural practice

C.   Input use

Pesticide use

13. Pesticides in rivers
14. Pesticides in groundwater's
15. Quantity of pesticide active ingredients used
16. Area treated with pesticides
17. Pesticide residues in food
Nutrients 18. N & P losses from agriculture
19. P levels of agricultural to soils
20. Manure management
21. Ammonia emissions from agriculture
Greenhouse gas emissions 22. Emissions of methane & nitrous oxide from agriculture
Energy 23. direct energy consumption by farms
24. Trends in indirect energy inputs to agriculture

D.   Resource use

Water 25. Use of water for irrigation
Soil 26. Organic matter content of agricultural top soils
27. Accumulation of heavy metals in agricultural top soils
Agricultural land 28. Area of agricultural land
29. Change in land use from agriculture to hard development 
Non-food crops 30. Planting of non-food crops
E.   Conservation value of agricultural land
Environmental conservation 31. Area of agricultural land under commitment to environmental conservation
Landscape 32. Characteristic features of farmland
Habitats 33. Area of cereal field margins under environmental management
34. Area of semi-natural grassland
Biodiversity 35. Populations of key farmland birds

Source: Towards sustainable agriculture: A pilot set of indicators, MAFF (February2000)

Pause for thought.........Suggest other indicators of agricultural sustainability

 [ Back to Subject List 5 ]

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Definitions ] Sustainable Development ] Indicators of Sustainable Development ] [ Sustainable Agriculture ] Integrated Systems ]

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