The lack of a commonly agreed upon definition for sustainable agriculture is believed by some to be an impediment to meaningful dialogue. I suggest that sustainable agriculture should not be understood as a specific agricultural practice, technology or system. Rather, agricultural sustainability is a societal goal to be pursued forever and for everyone and guided by general principles. The following principles are offered for purposes of discussion.

     1. A sustainable agricultural system is based on the prudent use of renewable and/or recyclable resources. A system which depends on exhaustible (finite) resources such as fossil fuels can not be sustained indefinitely. A sustainable system would use renewable energy sources such as biological, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar, or wind. Use of recyclable resources such as groundwater at rates greater than recharge depletes reserves and can not be sustained.

     2. A sustainable agricultural system protects the integrity of natural systems so that natural resources are continually regenerated. Our current thinking focuses on reducing the rate of degradation of natural and agricultural ecosystems. A system will not be sustainable as long as the goal is simply to decrease the rate of its degradation. Sustainable agricultural systems should maintain or improve groundwater and surface water quality and regenerate healthy agricultural soils.

     3. A sustainable agricultural system improves the quality of life of individuals and communities. In order to stem the rural to urban migration, rural communities must offer people a good standard of living including diverse employment opportunities, health care, education, social services and cultural activities. Young people must be afforded opportunities to develop rural enterprises, including farming, in ways which care for the land so that it may be passed onto future generations in as good or in better condition than it was received.

     4. A sustainable agricultural system is profitable. Transition to new ways of knowing, doing and being require incentives for all participants. Some of these incentives are necessarily economic. Systems and practices that do not include profitability as one of the prime motivators will not be voluntarily implemented.

     5. A sustainable agricultural system is guided by a land ethic that considers the long-term good of all members of the land community. Holistic or whole-system analysis views an agroecosystem as a dynamic community of soil, water, air and biotic species. All parts are important because they contribute to the whole. This ethic strives to protect the health of the land community, that is its capacity for self-renewal.


                                                                                                                   John M. Gerber, 1990

Converted by Brian Gerber