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Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms

Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms


Since 1994, when the first edition of this Special Reference Brief was compiled, "sustainability" has become a more familiar term. The goal of achieving a sustainable planet, one that will accommodate the basic needs of its present inhabitants while preserving the resources that will enable future generations to flourish, has gained increasing acceptance. Although certainly not mainstream at this point, sustainable agriculture is now being addressed by the agricultural community in significant ways. The mid- to late-nineties have seen:

Acceptance of Biodiversity and Climate Change Conventions as international law, ratified by over 120 countries (1992-1999)
Establishment of the U.S. President's Council on Sustainable Development and its Task Force on Sustainable Agriculture (1993)
Presentation for comment and unprecedented consumer response to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Proposed Standards for Organic Food Production (1997-1998)
Enactment of the U.S. Food Quality Protection Act (1997)
Celebration of 10 successful years of USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program (1998)

In 1996, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Daniel Glickman issued a Memorandum on USDA sustainable agriculture policy. It stated, "USDA is committed to working toward the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of diverse food, fiber, agriculture, forest, and range systems. USDA will balance goals of improved production and profitability, stewardship of the natural resource base and ecological systems, and enhancement of the vitality of rural communities. USDA will integrate these goals into its policies and programs, particularly through interagency collaboration, partnerships and outreach." [Secretary’s Memorandum 9500-6: Sustainable Development (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of the Secretary, Sept. 13, 1996)]

If advocating the need for a sustainable agriculture has become universal, agreement as to what is required to achieve it has not. As more parties sign on to the sustainable agriculture effort, perceptions about what defines sustainability in agriculture have multiplied. This paper 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.