What is sustainable agriculture anyway?

Sustainable agriculture is an ambiguous term. Because ‘sustainable’ simply means ‘maintained at the current level’, sustainable agriculture can be whatever you want it to be. It’s used more than it probably should be in scientific and political documents, because it’s a broad encompassing term that most people have heard. But it needs to be interpreted within the context it’s referring to, not on its own. Sometimes that context isn’t clear.

Modern agriculture is a leading driver of our current environmental problems, already pushing us beyond the safe limits of most planetary boundaries. But not all agriculture is equal. Very few studies, or their associated news  stories, clarify the subtle social and ecological differences between individual farms and landscapes.

Some definitions:

Conventional agriculture. This term refers to the standard, mainstream agricultural practice. Most often, and especially in Australia and the US, this means high-input farming, usually in systems with low genetic diversity (e.g. monocultures).

Traditional agriculture. This term is used in a number of contradictory ways, probably confused by the various meanings of the word ‘traditional’. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for broad-scale ‘conventional’ farming, sometimes it is used to refer to subsistence or nomadic farming. Technically, the term ‘traditional’ refers to management practices in a system that have been carried on over multiple generations. So, just like ‘sustainable ag’, it’s relevant to whatever context you’re referring to.

Organic agriculture. The origins of organic farming are all about supporting holistic management of farming systems, focusing on healthy soil, reduced synthetic inputs, and social responsibility. However, many countries (including Australia) don’t regulate organic agriculture under law. (N.B. There is an Australian standard of approved additives/inputs for organic and biodynamic produce.) Organic farmers wanting to connect with consumers seeking organic produce often have to rely on expensive certification systems managed by for-profit companies. Yet these systems aren’t always reliable for consumers and rarely measure social responsibility. The lack of regulation and ‘conventionalisation of organic agriculture’ creates a dilemma for consumers: some non-certified (and not very holistic) producers can legally use the term ‘organic’ in their labelling without being certified, while other non-certified (and totally holistic) producers can’t afford certification. This is a key reason why you should read the methods of many of the scientific papers claiming to show differences between ‘organic vs. conventional ag’ – very few of these studies consider actual management practices of individual farms.

Biodynamic agriculture. Biodynamic farming principles are very similar to organic farming, based on holistic management of farm systems. Whether or not you agree with the philosophy behind biodynamic farming, there are some studies showing that biodynamic farming may have environmental benefits. There is far less scientific research published on biodynamic agriculture compared to organic agriculture. The argument that ‘there is no evidence’ on biodynamic farming is limited by two factors: (i) because biodynamic farming is not mainstream, I suspect very few public funding bodies have handed out funds to researchers to study biodynamic agriculture; (ii) researchers that do study biodynamic farms in comparative field studies may use the ‘organic’ label in publications, to enhance communication. I did this myself in previous field studies – because of limited access to suitable ‘non-conventional’ farms in my study regions, I used both organic and biodynamic orchards in my ‘non-conventional’ category. But, in published papers, I lumped them together under the more recognisable ‘organic’ label, after peer reviewers of a couple of manuscripts said they’d never heard of biodynamic agriculture.

Permaculture, Holistic Agriculture and Regenerative Agriculture have similar foundations and overlap with many of the principles of organic and biodynamic approaches.

Agroecology. This systems approach to agriculture is all about ecological interactions. Agroecology is a science, a farming practice, and a social movement. As a science, it focuses on studying farms as holistic systems of social and ecological interactions, rather than individual, labelled farms. As a farming practice, agroecology takes an ecological approach to food production by managing land to optimise beneficial natural interactions, i.e. ecosystem services. As a social movement, agroecology promotes farmers that are independent of corporate influence, ethical consumption of outputs, and local/regional farmer-consumer networks. All three aspects of agroecology interact. Scientists have shown the merit of agroecological approaches for decades and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation recently named Agroecology as the key approach to address the multitude of global food security, nutrition and environmental issues. Agroecology is a holistic approach to research and practice, demanding the expertise of a broad range of academics, farmers, professionals and consumers.

So what?

The organic vs. conventional dichotomy has dominated scientific research for years. Perhaps it’s easier to analyse, perhaps it’s easier to communicate the results. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Wild animals and ecological processes don’t respond to labels we make up; they respond to management practices, processes, inputs, and environmental contexts. We need more research that identifies the influence of all these factors over time, not more studies that calculate static differences between ‘organic’ and ‘conventional’.

One label isn’t inherently more sustainable than the other. Whatever you call it, agriculture that harnesses ecological interactions to produce food and fibre, while also protecting nature and human well-being, is what we need.


© Manu Saunders 2017

6 thoughts on “What is sustainable agriculture anyway?

  1. Bartosz Bartkowski November 19, 2017 / 10:26 PM

    A very nice piece. I’ve often been annoyed by statements like “(only) [organic/biodynamic/whatever] agriculture is going to save the world” – but it’s about practices, not labels, just as you said. Besides, a common problem with organic agriculture in Europe is that certification focuses on cultivation and input only, so that organic mango flown in from Africa or organic pears from Argentina are consumed by us LOHAS, while conventional but regional apples might be a more “sustainable” (ignoring for the moment the ambiguities of the term you rightly pointed out) source of vitamins…

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  2. PK Read November 20, 2017 / 5:54 PM

    Great post. One of my pet peeves when people argue that organic is no better than conventional farming when it comes to human health is that the argument almost never includes which part of human health. Is organic food necessarily higher in nutritional value? Maybe not. If human health includes living in a healthy ecosystem, or respecting the health of other humans in the ecosystems where the food is grown (and the animals and plants that share that space), then as you say, agroecology is the way forward.
    The flip side of the ‘always organic’ crowd is the large portion of the public and some media which views anything smacking of organic farming (and, if they had heard of it, I imagine agroecology) as a pretentious virtue flag of elitists who choose to pay the higher prices in return for feeling superior. Undermining this negative bias seems to me to be a real challenge in the wider acceptance of and demand for more integrative approaches.

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    • Manu Saunders November 20, 2017 / 7:07 PM

      Great comment! Completely agree, it is a huge challenge to get through the ‘organic denial’ biases..

      Liked by 1 person

  3. standingoutinmyfield November 20, 2017 / 8:05 PM

    We had a similar problem with organic labels in apple orchards…the organic growers could use certain chemicals (oils, heavy metals, etc) for which there is no measured environmental impact quotient. So we couldn’t directly compare the impact of the pesticides used in those orchards, because their impact is simply unknown.

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