Learn about sustainability indicators used to gauge and evaluate a farm’s progress toward a more sustainable future.
Contour farming with buffer strips. These conservation practices reduce erosion and water pollution.. Photo: NRCS/USDA; Wikimedia Commons.
Table of Contents
- Sustainability on the Farm
- Energy and Sustainable Agricultural Systems
Sustainability on the Farm
Sustainability is the ability of a system to meet current and future human and environmental needs. Agricultural sustainability refers to practices that promote the stewardship of natural resources, the economic viability of farms, and quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
In the 1990 Farm Bill, Congress defined sustainable agriculture as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that, over the long term:
- satisfies human food and fiber needs;
- enhances environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
- makes the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrates, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
- sustains the economic viability of farm operations; and
- enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
The USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program defines sustainable agriculture as “profitable, environmentally sound, and good for communities.” This definition ensures a holistic approach that integrates the three critical dimensions — environmental, economic and social — of any sustainable system.
Energy and Sustainable Agricultural Systems
Energy and sustainable agriculture systems cannot be viewed distinctly; rather, sustainable farming systems would, with regard to established standards and criteria, do the following:
Energy Use and Efficiency
- create at least as much useful energy as they consume. This necessitates increased use of efficiency and conservation and renewable energy
- maintain and regenerate healthy soils, prevent soil erosion, leave adequate surface crop residues in the field and incorporate cover crops. Perennial deep-rooted crops and grasses would be grown to protect the soil and marginal lands highly susceptible to erosion would not be sown.
Water and Nutrient Management
- maintain or improve water use and water quality. Such a system would also employ a nutrient management plan and maximize use of on-farm nutrients such as manure and cover crops. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer would be used sparingly, based on regular soil testing and precise application timed to coincide with crop growth needs. Any water leaving the farm would be clean and capable of supporting healthy aquatic ecosystems. Surface and ground water would not be depleted.
Low Impact Pest Management
- maximize use of plant mixtures, crop rotations, and integrated pest management (IPM) and avoid monocultures that are susceptible to diseases and pests and require heavy applications of pesticides.
- sequester more greenhouse gases than they release into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions would be limited through conservation tillage reduced and precision applications of nitrogen fertilizer, irrigation efficiency, and methane capture. Net reductions in greenhouse gases would fully consider the complete life cycle of materials and processes, as well as indirect impacts that may be caused by land-clearing, burning, conversion of forest to croplands or other changes in land-use patterns.
Wildlife and Biodiversity
- sustain natural systems for the benefit of wildlife, and biodiversity. Some bioenergy schemes rely heavily on genetically modified crops, yeasts and other organisms that some fear could cause cross-pollination, “super weeds,” or other problems for existing agricultural enterprises.
Human Needs and Food Security
- meet human needs for safe and affordable food above the need for energy production and not disrupt food production or cause food insecurity.
- ensure the long-term social and economic viability of farming and rural communities. When farmers own a share in ethanol or biodiesel plants, they receive a higher percentage of profits than they could expect from absentee owners. These dollars also tend to stay in the community, circulating among local businesses and causing a multiplier effect.
Farm Energy and Sustainability Concerns
- Questions have come up frequently in relation to key questions about the biofuel sustainability debate particularly with regard to ethanol and other biofuels. In response, a variety of efforts to develop sustainability standards and indicators for biofuels are underway around the world.
Contributors to this Article
- Diana Friedman, SARE
- Mike Morris, National Center For Appropriate Technology (ATTRA)
- Michael Bomford, Kentucky State University
- Vern Grubinger, Professor, University of Vermont Extension