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Rural Issues -- Agriculture

Agriculture and other renewable natural resource industries once dominated livelihoods in much of rural America. Today rural manufacturing accounts for two and half times as many jobs as agriculture and forestry. Still these industries are vital -- both economically and culturally -- for many localized areas within rural America. Sustaining agriculture and other renewable resource industries will be critical to sustaining many rural communities.

Just what that agriculture may look like is the topic of lively debate. Sustainable agriculture means many things to many people. It is perhaps arguable that sustainability in agriculture is essentially an energy issue. Beginning in the 20th century, the energy of human and animal labor and wastes has been replaced with the use of fossil fuels and mechanization. Today nearly half the energy consumed in the United States goes into our agricultural system. This transformation of agriculture has been tremendously productive in terms of delivering large quantities of inexpensive food, yet it comes at a social and environmental cost to rural communities and landscapes.

From a purely ecological perspective, defining sustainable agriculture is relatively straightforward. Renowned tropical ecologist John Terborgh, in his book Requiem for Nature, describes sustainable development as "when outputs are balanced in kind by inputs." He continues, applying that criterion to agriculture:

An agricultural system, for example, would be sustainable if the outputs, the nutrients contained in the crop and soil that are lost to erosion, were balanced by inputs, in the form of fertilizer and new soil created by weathering of the underlying bedrock. All additional inputs, such as energy, water, chemicals, and fertilizer, would also have to be sustainably produced.... Energy consumed in crop production, such as that used to power tractors and irrigation pumps, would have to come from renewable sources such as solar collection or hydroelectric generation. Any reliance on fossil fuels and fossil water, both nonrenewable resources, would, of course, be precluded.

Such stringent definitions may indeed prove difficult for many to embrace. Still sustainable agriculture strives to fulfull ecological aims, such as promoting biodiversity, balancing pest and predator relationships, cycling nutrients, building soil and using water efficiently.

For some, sustainable agriculture is synonymous with organic agriculture. Organics, while still playing a small role in the overall agriculture picture, have proven to be one of the fastest growing segments in agriculture. A recent USDA study found that certified organic cropland doubled during the 1990s, and that some sectors like organic dairy and egg production, grew even faster.  For an overview of the organics industry, follow this link to the Organic Trade Association.

Facing a burgeoning global population, with estimates reaching nine billion people in fifty years, some industry advocates look to agricultural biotechnology as a means of receiving higher yields with less topsoil loss and reliance on fuel and pesticides. There is, however, considerable debate on biotechnology in agriculture. For an industry perspective, see the Council on Biotechnology Information website; for a critical view, see the Institute for Food and Development Policy website.

Agricultural sustainability, however, may entail more than just ecological and demographic concerns. The author and farmer Wendell Berry describes sustainable agriculture as one that "does not deplete soils or people." Likewise, Missouri agricultural economist, John E. Ikerd argues that sustainability touches on social, even spiritual, concerns:

The three corner stones of sustainable agriculture -- ecological soundness, economic viability, and social responsibility -- rest upon a foundation of intergenerational equity. Intergenerational equity, in turn, has its foundation in human spirituality. Sustainability applies the Golden Rule across generations.

While the interest in defining sustainable agriculture may reflect widely varying concerns, it involves legal descriptions as well. In the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, Congress established that sustainable agriculture will, over the long term, "satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm  resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

Researchers at Canada's International Institute for Sustainable Development agree with the preceding description of sustainable agriculture and further assert that these goals can be arrived at in a variety of ways, that sustainability isn't " the exclusive domain of organic farming" nor is it tied to any one technological practice.

"Rather, sustainable agriculture is thought of in terms of its adaptability and flexibility over time to respond to the demands for food and fiber (both high and low), its demands on natural resources for production, and its ability to protect the soil and the resources. This goal requires an efficient use of technology in a manner conducive to sustainability. Finally, because agriculture is affected by changes in market and resource decisions in other sectors and regions, it is important that these changes do not provide a rationale for depleting the agricultural resource base locally." (From Agriculture and Sustainable Development: Policy Analysis on the Great Plains)

In that context, agricultural sustainability may be arrived at from a number of paths.  This section carries no intent to resolve the debate over what constitutes sustainable agriculture. It will, however, attempt to explore the breadth of the discussion with the hope of offering a forum for the consideration of ideas. The focus will be on the effects agriculture has on rural communities.  The following links continue to examine the shape of sustainable agriculture.

Exploring Sustainability in Agriculture offers a brief overview of sustainable agricultural practices and features a number of profiles of farmers pursuing it. From the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Network.

A wide range of sustainable agriculture definitions and organizations can be found at the WWW Virtual Library.

Defining and Implementing Sustainable Agriculture compares various definitions and dispels some myths about sustainable agriculture. The report, from Kansas State University, also examines issues related to implementing sustainable agriculture, and includes a list of institutions (mainly in Kansas) that support sustainable agriculture.

Two mindsets, two visions of sustainable agriculture offers a partisan view of sustainable ag from Donella Meadows, the late organic farmer, professor, and director of the Sustainability Institute.

Still have questions about sustainable agriculture? Check out FAQs from the Union of Concerned Scientists or consult the many resources offered by Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas (ATTRA), a national sustainable farming information center.

Last updated October 21, 2003

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