History and Key Concepts
Agriculture has changed dramatically since the end of World War II. Food and fiber productivity has soared due to new technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization, and government policies that favored maximizing production and reducing food prices. These changes have allowed fewer farmers to produce more food and fiber at lower prices.
Although these developments have had many positive effects and reduced many risks in farming, they also have significant costs. Prominent among these are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, the decline of family farms, neglect of the living and working conditions of farm laborers, new threats to human health and safety due to the spread of new pathogens, economic concentration in food and agricultural industries, and disintegration of rural communities.
A growing movement has emerged during the past four decades to question the necessity of these high costs and to offer innovative alternatives. Today this movement for sustainable agriculture is garnering increasing support and acceptance within our food production systems. Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals – environmental health, economic profitability, and social equity (Figure 1). A variety of philosophies, policies and practices have contributed to these goals, but a few common themes and principles weave through most definitions of sustainable agriculture.
Agricultural sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, long-term stewardship of both natural and human resources is of equal importance to short-term economic gain. Stewardship of human resources includes consideration of social responsibilities such as working and living conditions of laborers, the needs of rural communities, and consumer health and safety both in the present and the future. Stewardship of land and natural resources involves maintaining or enhancing the quality of these resources and using them in ways that allow them to be regenerated for the future. Stewardship considerations must also address concerns about animal welfare in farm enterprises that include livestock.
An agroecosystems and food systems perspective is essential to understanding sustainability. Agroecosystems are envisioned in the broadest sense, from individual fields to farms to ecozones. Food systems, which include agroecosystems plus distribution and food consumption components, similarly span from farmer to local community to global population. An emphasis on a systems perspective allows for a comprehensive view of our agricultural production and distribution enterprises, and how they affect human communities and the natural environment. Conversely, a systems approach also gives us the tools to assess the impact of human society and its institutions on farming and its environmental sustainability.