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What is sustainable agriculture?

by abwhite last modified Jan 09, 2017 04:34 PM

The goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system—growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers—can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.

There are many practices commonly used by people working in sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems. Growers may use methods to promote soil health, minimize water use, and lower pollution levels on the farm. Consumers and retailers concerned with sustainability can look for “values-based” foods that are grown using methods promoting farmworker wellbeing, that are environmentally friendly, or that strengthen the local economy. And researchers in sustainable agriculture often cross disciplinary lines with their work: combining biology, economics, engineering, chemistry, community development, and many others. However, sustainable agriculture is more than a collection of practices. It is also process of negotiation: a push and pull between the sometimes competing interests of an individual farmer or of people in a community as they work to solve complex problems about how we grow our food and fiber.

The rest of this page delves further into the philosophy and practices underpinning sustainable agriculture. Or visit the links to the right to visit practical pages for practicing sustainable agriculture.



Since World War II the number of U.S. farms has declined and the average farm size has increased.

Agriculture has changed dramatically, especially since the end of World War II. Food and fiber productivity soared due to new technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization and government policies that favored maximizing production. These changes allowed fewer farmers with reduced labor demands to produce the majority of the food and fiber in the U.S.

Although these changes have had many positive effects and reduced many risks in farming, there have also been significant costs. Prominent among these are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm laborers, increasing costs of production, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.

Potential Costs of Modern Agricultural Techniques

A growing movement has emerged during the past two decades to question the role of the agricultural establishment in promoting practices that contribute to these social problems. Today this movement for sustainable agriculture is garnering increasing support and acceptance within mainstream agriculture. Not only does sustainable agriculture address many environmental and social concerns, but it offers innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, laborers, consumers, policymakers and many others in the entire food system.

This page is an effort to identify the ideas, practices and policies that constitute our concept of sustainable agriculture. We do so for two reasons: 1) to clarify the research agenda and priorities of our program, and 2) to suggest to others practical steps that may be appropriate for them in moving toward sustainable agriculture. Because the concept of sustainable agriculture is still evolving, we intend this page not as a definitive or final statement, but as an invitation to continue the dialogue.

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

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Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals — environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.

A variety of philosophies, policies and practices have contributed to these goals. People in many different capacities, from farmers to consumers, have shared this vision and contributed to it.

Despite the diversity of people and perspectives, the following themes commonly weave through definitions of sustainable agriculture:

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, stewardship of both natural and human resources is of prime importance. 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 this vital resource base for the long term.

A systems perspective is essential to understanding sustainability.
The system is envisioned in its broadest sense, from the individual farm, to the local ecosystem, and to communities affected by this farming system both locally and globally. An emphasis on the system allows a larger and more thorough view of the consequences of farming practices on both human communities and the environment. A systems approach gives us the tools to explore the interconnections between farming and other aspects of our environment.

Everyone plays a role in creating a sustainable food system.

A systems approach also implies interdisciplinary efforts in research and education.
This requires not only the input of researchers from various disciplines, but also farmers, farmworkers, consumers, policymakers and others.

Making the transition to sustainable agriculture is a process.
For farmers, the transition to sustainable agriculture normally requires a series of small, realistic steps. Family economics and personal goals influence how fast or how far participants can go in the transition. It is important to realize that each small decision can make a difference and contribute to advancing the entire system further on the "sustainable agriculture continuum." The key to moving forward is the will to take the next step.

Finally, it is important to point out that reaching toward the goal of sustainable agriculture is the responsibility of all participants in the system, including farmers, laborers, policymakers, researchers, retailers, and consumers. Each group has its own part to play, its own unique contribution to make to strengthen the sustainable agriculture community.

The remainder of this page considers specific strategies for realizing these broad themes or goals. The strategies are grouped according to three separate though related areas of concern: Farming and Natural Resources, Plant and Animal Production Practices, and the Economic, Social and Political Context. They represent a range of potential ideas for individuals committed to interpreting the vision of sustainable agriculture within their own circumstances.

Farming and Natural Resources

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When the production of food and fiber degrades the natural resource base, the ability of future generations to produce and flourish decreases. The decline of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean region, Pre-Columbian southwest U.S. and Central America is believed to have been strongly influenced by natural resource degradation from non-sustainable farming and forestry practices. 

Groundwater  ContaminationWater

Water is the principal resource that has helped agriculture and society to prosper, and it has been a major limiting factor when mismanaged.

Water supply and use. In California, an extensive water storage and transfer system has been established which has allowed crop production to expand to very arid regions. In drought years, limited surface water supplies have prompted overdraft of groundwater and consequent intrusion of salt water, or permanent collapse of aquifers. Periodic droughts, some lasting up to 50 years, have occurred in California.

Several steps should be taken to develop drought-resistant farming systems even in "normal" years, including both policy and management actions:

1) improving water conservation and storage measures,

2) providing incentives for selection of drought-tolerant crop species,

3) using reduced-volume irrigation systems,

4) managing crops to reduce water loss, or

5) not planting at all.

Water quality. The most important issues related to water quality involve salinization and contamination of ground and surface waters by pesticides, nitrates and selenium. Salinity has become a problem wherever water of even relatively low salt content is used on shallow soils in arid regions and/or where the water table is near the root zone of crops. Tile drainage can remove the water and salts, but the disposal of the salts and other contaminants may negatively affect the environment depending upon where they are deposited. Temporary solutions include the use of salt-tolerant crops, low-volume irrigation, and various management techniques to minimize the effects of salts on crops. In the long-term, some farmland may need to be removed from production or converted to other uses. Other uses include conversion of row crop land to production of drought-tolerant forages, the restoration of wildlife habitat or the use of agroforestry to minimize the impacts of salinity and high water tables. Pesticide and nitrate contamination of water can be reduced using many of the practices discussed later in the Plant Production Practices and Animal Production Practices sections.

Wildlife. Another way in which agriculture affects water resources is through the destruction of riparian habitats within watersheds. The conversion of wild habitat to agricultural land reduces fish and wildlife through erosion and sedimentation, the effects of pesticides, removal of riparian plants, and the diversion of water. The plant diversity in and around both riparian and agricultural areas should be maintained in order to support a diversity of wildlife. This diversity will enhance natural ecosystems and could aid in agricultural pest management.


Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on non-renewable energy sources, especially petroleum. The continued use of these energy sources cannot be sustained indefinitely, yet to abruptly abandon our reliance on them would be economically catastrophic. However, a sudden cutoff in energy supply would be equally disruptive. In sustainable agricultural systems, there is reduced reliance on non-renewable energy sources and a substitution of renewable sources or labor to the extent that is economically feasible.


Many agricultural activities affect air quality. These include smoke from agricultural burning; dust from tillage, traffic and harvest; pesticide drift from spraying; and nitrous oxide emissions from the use of nitrogen fertilizer. Options to improve air quality include:

    • incorporating crop residue into the soil
    • using appropriate levels of tillage
    • and planting wind breaks, cover crops or strips of native perennial grasses to reduce dust.



Soil erosion continues to be a serious threat to our continued ability to produce adequate food. Numerous practices have been developed to keep soil in place, which include:

    • reducing or eliminating tillage
    • managing irrigation to reduce runoff
    • and keeping the soil covered with plants or mulch. 

Enhancement of soil quality is discussed in the next section.


Plant Production Practices

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Sustainable production practices involve a variety of approaches. Specific strategies must take into account topography, soil characteristics, climate, pests, local availability of inputs and the individual grower's goals. Despite the site-specific and individual nature of sustainable agriculture, several general principles can be applied to help growers select appropriate management practices:

    • Selection of species and varieties that are well suited to the site and to conditions on the farm;
    • Diversification of crops (including livestock) and cultural practices to enhance the biological and economic stability of the farm;
    • Management of the soil to enhance and protect soil quality;
    • Efficient and humane use of inputs; and
    • Consideration of farmers' goals and lifestyle choices.


Selection of site, species and variety

Preventive strategies, adopted early, can reduce inputs and help establish a sustainable production system. When possible, pest-resistant crops should be selected which are tolerant of existing soil or site conditions. When site selection is an option, factors such as soil type and depth, previous crop history, and location (e.g. climate, topography) should be taken into account before planting.


Diversified farms are usually more economically and ecologically resilient. While monoculture farming has advantages in terms of efficiency and ease of management, the loss of the crop in any one year could put a farm out of business and/or seriously disrupt the stability of a community dependent on that crop. By growing a variety of crops, farmers spread economic risk and are less susceptible to the radical price fluctuations associated with changes in supply and demand.

Properly managed, diversity can also buffer a farm in a biological sense. For example, in annual cropping systems, crop rotation can be used to suppress weeds, pathogens and insect pests. Also, cover crops can have stabilizing effects on the agroecosystem by holding soil and nutrients in place, conserving soil moisture with mowed or standing dead mulches, and by increasing the water infiltration rate and soil water holding capacity. Cover crops in orchards and vineyards can buffer the system against pest infestations by increasing beneficial arthropod populations and can therefore reduce the need for chemical inputs. Using a variety of cover crops is also important in order to protect against the failure of a particular species to grow and to attract and sustain a wide range of beneficial arthropods.

Optimum diversity may be obtained by integrating both crops and livestock in the same farming operation. This was the common practice for centuries until the mid-1900s when technology, government policy and economics compelled farms to become more specialized. Mixed crop and livestock operations have several advantages. First, growing row crops only on more level land and pasture or forages on steeper slopes will reduce soil erosion. Second, pasture and forage crops in rotation enhance soil quality and reduce erosion; livestock manure, in turn, contributes to soil fertility. Third, livestock can buffer the negative impacts of low rainfall periods by consuming crop residue that in "plant only" systems would have been considered crop failures. Finally, feeding and marketing are flexible in animal production systems. This can help cushion farmers against trade and price fluctuations and, in conjunction with cropping operations, make more efficient use of farm labor.

Soil management

A common philosophy among sustainable agriculture practitioners is that a "healthy" soil is a key component of sustainability; that is, a healthy soil will produce healthy crop plants that have optimum vigor and are less susceptible to pests. While many crops have key pests that attack even the healthiest of plants, proper soil, water and nutrient management can help prevent some pest problems brought on by crop stress or nutrient imbalance. Furthermore, crop management systems that impair soil quality often result in greater inputs of water, nutrients, pesticides, and/or energy for tillage to maintain yields.

In sustainable systems, the soil is viewed as a fragile and living medium that must be protected and nurtured to ensure its long-term productivity and stability. Methods to protect and enhance the productivity of the soil include:

    • using cover crops, compost and/or manures
    • reducing tillage
    • avoiding traffic on wet soils
    • maintaining soil cover with plants and/or mulches

Conditions in most California soils (warm, irrigated, and tilled) do not favor the buildup of organic matter. Regular additions of organic matter or the use of cover crops can increase soil aggregate stability, soil tilth, and diversity of soil microbial life.

Efficient use of inputs

Many inputs and practices used by conventional farmers are also used in sustainable agriculture. Sustainable farmers, however, maximize reliance on natural, renewable, and on-farm inputs. Equally important are the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a particular strategy. Converting to sustainable practices does not mean simple input substitution. Frequently, it substitutes enhanced management and scientific knowledge for conventional inputs, especially chemical inputs that harm the environment on farms and in rural communities. The goal is to develop efficient, biological systems which do not need high levels of material inputs.

Growers frequently ask if synthetic chemicals are appropriate in a sustainable farming system. Sustainable approaches are those that are the least toxic and least energy intensive, and yet maintain productivity and profitability. Preventive strategies and other alternatives should be employed before using chemical inputs from any source. However, there may be situations where the use of synthetic chemicals would be more "sustainable" than a strictly nonchemical approach or an approach using toxic "organic" chemicals. For example, one grape grower switched from tillage to a few applications of a broad spectrum contact herbicide in the vine row. This approach may use less energy and may compact the soil less than numerous passes with a cultivator or mower.

Consideration of farmer goals and lifestyle choices

Management decisions should reflect not only environmental and broad social considerations, but also individual goals and lifestyle choices. For example, adoption of some technologies or practices that promise profitability may also require such intensive management that one's lifestyle actually deteriorates. Management decisions that promote sustainability, nourish the environment, the community and the individual.

Animal Production Practices

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In the early part of this century, most farms integrated both crop and livestock operations. Indeed, the two were highly complementary both biologically and economically. The current picture has changed quite drastically since then. Crop and animal producers now are still dependent on one another to some degree, but the integration now most commonly takes place at a higher level--between farmers, through intermediaries, rather than within the farm itself. This is the result of a trend toward separation and specialization of crop and animal production systems. Despite this trend, there are still many farmers, particularly in the Midwest and Northeastern U.S. that integrate crop and animal systems--either on dairy farms, or with range cattle, sheep or hog operations.

Even with the growing specialization of livestock and crop producers, many of the principles outlined in the crop production section apply to both groups. The actual management practices will, of course, be quite different. Some of the specific points that livestock producers need to address are listed below.

Management Planning

Including livestock in the farming system increases the complexity of biological and economic relationships. The mobility of the stock, daily feeding, health concerns, breeding operations, seasonal feed and forage sources, and complex marketing are sources of this complexity. Therefore, a successful ranch plan should include enterprise calendars of operations, stock flows, forage flows, labor needs, herd production records and land use plans to give the manager control and a means of monitoring progress toward goals.

Animal Selection

The animal enterprise must be appropriate for the farm or ranch resources. Farm capabilities and constraints such as feed and forage sources, landscape, climate and skill of the manager must be considered in selecting which animals to produce. For example, ruminant animals can be raised on a variety of feed sources including range and pasture, cultivated forage, cover crops, shrubs, weeds, and crop residues. There is a wide range of breeds available in each of the major ruminant species, i.e., cattle, sheep and goats. Hardier breeds that, in general, have lower growth and milk production potential, are better adapted to less favorable environments with sparse or highly seasonal forage growth.

Animal nutrition

Feed costs are the largest single variable cost in any livestock operation. While most of the feed may come from other enterprises on the ranch, some purchased feed is usually imported from off the farm. Feed costs can be kept to a minimum by monitoring animal condition and performance and understanding seasonal variations in feed and forage quality on the farm. Determining the optimal use of farm-generated by-products is an important challenge of diversified farming.


Use of quality germplasm to improve herd performance is another key to sustainability. In combination with good genetic stock, adapting the reproduction season to fit the climate and sources of feed and forage reduce health problems and feed costs.

Herd Health

Animal health greatly influences reproductive success and weight gains, two key aspects of successful livestock production. Unhealthy stock waste feed and require additional labor. A herd health program is critical to sustainable livestock production.

Grazing Management

Most adverse environmental impacts associated with grazing can be prevented or mitigated with proper grazing management. First, the number of stock per unit area (stocking rate) must be correct for the landscape and the forage sources. There will need to be compromises between the convenience of tilling large, unfenced fields and the fencing needs of livestock operations. Use of modern, temporary fencing may provide one practical solution to this dilemma. Second, the long term carrying capacity and the stocking rate must take into account short and long-term droughts. Especially in Mediterranean climates such as in California, properly managed grazing significantly reduces fire hazards by reducing fuel build-up in grasslands and brushlands. Finally, the manager must achieve sufficient control to reduce overuse in some areas while other areas go unused. Prolonged concentration of stock that results in permanent loss of vegetative cover on uplands or in riparian zones should be avoided. However, small scale loss of vegetative cover around water or feed troughs may be tolerated if surrounding vegetative cover is adequate.

Confined Livestock Production

Animal health and waste management are key issues in confined livestock operations. The moral and ethical debate taking place today regarding animal welfare is particularly intense for confined livestock production systems. The issues raised in this debate need to be addressed.

Confinement livestock production is increasingly a source of surface and ground water pollutants, particularly where there are large numbers of animals per unit area. Expensive waste management facilities are now a necessary cost of confined production systems. Waste is a problem of almost all operations and must be managed with respect to both the environment and the quality of life in nearby communities. Livestock production systems that disperse stock in pastures so the wastes are not concentrated and do not overwhelm natural nutrient cycling processes have become a subject of renewed interest.

The Economic, Social & Political Context

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In addition to strategies for preserving natural resources and changing production practices, sustainable agriculture requires a commitment to changing public policies, economic institutions, and social values. Strategies for change must take into account the complex, reciprocal and ever-changing relationship between agricultural production and the broader society.

The "food system" extends far beyond the farm and involves the interaction of individuals and institutions with contrasting and often competing goals including farmers, researchers, input suppliers, farmworkers, unions, farm advisors, processors, retailers, consumers, and policymakers. Relationships among these actors shift over time as new technologies spawn economic, social and political changes.

A wide diversity of strategies and approaches are necessary to create a more sustainable food system. These will range from specific and concentrated efforts to alter specific policies or practices, to the longer-term tasks of reforming key institutions, rethinking economic priorities, and challenging widely-held social values. Areas of concern where change is most needed include the following:

Food and agricultural policy

Existing federal, state and local government policies often impede the goals of sustainable agriculture. New policies are needed to simultaneously promote environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. For example, commodity and price support programs could be restructured to allow farmers to realize the full benefits of the productivity gains made possible through alternative practices. Tax and credit policies could be modified to encourage a diverse and decentralized system of family farms rather than corporate concentration and absentee ownership. Government and land grant university research policies could be modified to emphasize the development of sustainable alternatives. Marketing orders and cosmetic standards could be amended to encourage reduced pesticide use. Coalitions must be created to address these policy concerns at the local, regional, and national level.

Land use

Conversion of agricultural land to urban uses is a particular concern in California, as rapid growth and escalating land values threaten farming on prime soils. Existing farmland conversion patterns often discourage farmers from adopting sustainable practices and a long-term perspective on the value of land. At the same time, the close proximity of newly developed residential areas to farms is increasing the public demand for environmentally safe farming practices. Comprehensive new policies to protect prime soils and regulate development are needed, particularly in California's Central Valley. By helping farmers to adopt practices that reduce chemical use and conserve scarce resources, sustainable agriculture research and education can play a key role in building public support for agricultural land preservation. Educating land use planners and decision-makers about sustainable agriculture is an important priority.


In California, the conditions of agricultural labor are generally far below accepted social standards and legal protections in other forms of employment. Policies and programs are needed to address this problem, working toward socially just and safe employment that provides adequate wages, working conditions, health benefits, and chances for economic stability. The needs of migrant labor for year-around employment and adequate housing are a particularly crucial problem needing immediate attention. To be more sustainable over the long-term, labor must be acknowledged and supported by government policies, recognized as important constituents of land grant universities, and carefully considered when assessing the impacts of new technologies and practices.

Rural Community Development

Rural communities in California are currently characterized by economic and environmental deterioration. Many are among the poorest locations in the nation. The reasons for the decline are complex, but changes in farm structure have played a significant role. Sustainable agriculture presents an opportunity to rethink the importance of family farms and rural communities. Economic development policies are needed that encourage more diversified agricultural production on family farms as a foundation for healthy economies in rural communities. In combination with other strategies, sustainable agriculture practices and policies can help foster community institutions that meet employment, educational, health, cultural and spiritual needs.

Consumers and the Food System

Consumers can play a critical role in creating a sustainable food system. Through their purchases, they send strong messages to producers, retailers and others in the system about what they think is important. Food cost and nutritional quality have always influenced consumer choices. The challenge now is to find strategies that broaden consumer perspectives, so that environmental quality, resource use, and social equity issues are also considered in shopping decisions. At the same time, new policies and institutions must be created to enable producers using sustainable practices to market their goods to a wider public. Coalitions organized around improving the food system are one specific method of creating a dialogue among consumers, retailers, producers and others. These coalitions or other public forums can be important vehicles for clarifying issues, suggesting new policies, increasing mutual trust, and encouraging a long-term view of food production, distribution and consumption.


Contact the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, (530) 752-7556. Written by Gail Feenstra, Writer; Chuck Ingels, Perennial Cropping Systems Analyst; and David Campbell, Economic and Public Policy Analyst with contributions from David Chaney, Melvin R. George, Eric Bradford, the staff and advisory committees of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.


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