Sustainable Agriculture: What Is It? And Why?

This is a talk I gave to a group of farmers and agriculture policy makers Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, in Enid, Miss.
Sustainable Agriculture: What is it? And Why?
By Jim PathFinder Ewing

Two years ago, Gaining Ground – Sustainability Institute of Mississippi embarked upon an ambitious project: to build a Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network.
It had not been done before in Mississippi and so, it’s a signal achievement that now, with the help of grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and Winrock Foundation, that GGSIM’s dream of a network of sustainable farmers in the state is finally taking off.
While GGSIM could easily see that there was a need for a network of farmers to help each other help themselves toward sustainable farming and help consumers find those farmers, actually providing a definition for “sustainable agriculture” proved a thornier problem.
As the eclectic board of GGSIM — composed of academics, food, farming and health enthusiasts and farmers themselves — discovered: each constituency seems to have its own definition of “sustainable” when it comes to food and farming.
The board was confronted with a suddenly problematic issue: Just What is Sustainable Agriculture?
Being an organic farmer, my first thought was — of course! — sustainable farming is farming that follows the sustainable practice of organic farming.
But, as others on the board pointed out, there are many different flavors of “natural” or eco-sensitive farming: ecofarming, ecological farming, agroecology, permaculture, biodynamic, the list goes on.
Looking for an authoritative source, I checked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has its own definition:

A 1996 Memorandum defined the USDA’s sustainable agriculture policy by stating: “USDA is committed to working toward the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of diverse food, fiber, agriculture, forest, and range systems. USDA will balance goals of improved production and profitability, stewardship of the natural resource base and ecological systems, and enhancement of the vitality of rural communities. USDA will integrate these goals into its policies and programs, particularly through interagency collaboration, partnerships and outreach.” (Source: USDA website:

In case this seems a rather nebulous definition, attempting to include all aspects of farming into one definition, it has a reason for being that way. In the 1990 Farm Bill, which this policy seeks to implement, the mandate for sustainability itself, while required, was weakened by this language: defined as to “make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, (italics mine) natural biological cycles and controls…” and further limited to “having a site-specific application.”

The words “where appropriate” has been used as a modifier to allow the use of materials and practices that would seem to be at odds with sustainability, while the “site specific” limitation has all but negated its widespread use or effectiveness as a program goal.

So, on the one hand, you have a USDA policy that requires sustainability and on the other a policy that seemingly negates its impact or advisability, generally relegated to a policy of appreciation for natural resources as “where appropriate.”
But that also must be understood from where USDA stands regarding the bulk of its programs. Using artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic inputs is called “conventional” agriculture, or “industrial farming.” It is by any normal definition “unsustainable” because it relies exclusively on artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic inputs. Yet, USDA is attempting to incorporate “sustainability” into this model.

So, the USDA definition wasn’t — and isn’t — much help to us in defining Sustainable Agriculture.

As the GGSIM board found, there also wasn’t a great deal of consensus among farmers themselves who believe they are practicing sustainable agriculture.
For example, farmers surveyed by GGSIM who defined themselves as sustainable  ranged from those who followed organic, natural, permaculture or biodynamic processes and no synthetic inputs; to those who used spot synthetic inputs (such as RoundUp herbicide) but otherwise did not use synthetic inputs; to one farmer who used horses for tilling fields and horse manure for fertilizer and believed using gasoline or diesel engines for tractors or tiller was unsustainable, but also used synthetic materials when needed. As one farmer pointed out, you can’t be sustainable as a business if you can’t sell your crop; if spot treatment is what’s required to stay in business, so be it.

This engendered a whole new conversation among the GGSIM board: farmers’ economic sustainability.
In fact, one of GGSIM’s board members, Preston Sullivan, had written an article about it, titled Applying the Principles of Sustainable Farming, published on the National Center for Appropriate Technology website. Preston’s piece,, is an excellent primer on sustainable farming. It perfectly lays out goals of sustainability.

As Preston reports:
Sustainable farming meets environmental, economic, and social objectives simultaneously. Environmentally sound agriculture is nature-based rather than factory-based. Economic sustainability depends on profitable enterprises, sound financial planning, proactive marketing, and risk management. Social sustainability results from making decisions with the farm family’s and the larger community’s quality of life as a value and a goal.

In addition, since GGSIM is about about sustainability from a variety of vantages, we must include the human, social and emotional aspects. One definition that board members rallied around was by Sustainable Table:

Sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities. (For more, see:
By taking all of these definitions that we could agree upon and putting them together, with our own concerns, GGSIM came up with this:

MSAN Definition of Sustainable Farming:    

Sustainable farming meets environmental, economic, and social objectives simultaneously. It promotes:

a.     The health of farmers and their communities;

b.     Stewardship of the environment and  non-renewable resources; and

c.     Long term financial viability

These are lofty goals.
So, now, Why?

Why Sustainability?
The “Why” closely follows the “How” of sustainability when it comes to sustainable agriculture.

Globally, we are witnessing incredible changes in our planet that cannot be overlooked, from climate change to destruction of critical ecosystems such as the tropical rain forests, to depletion of fish stocks to degradation of air, water and land. The burning and depletion of fossil fuels is a major element in this environmental change, and agriculture is a major part of global environmental distress.
In fact, there is a growing movement to name a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, to reflect the cumulative ill effects of human impacts upon Earth starting with the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago.
While these larger issues are of concern, and require action — from curbing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting recycling, approving international agreements to protect our soil, water and air — our focus is on what we as farmers can do to minimize impacts upon the areas where we live, work, eat and breathe.

Certifying agencies — USDA certified organic, Certified Naturally Grown, etc. — can define farm practices they will or won’t allow. It is not GGSIM’s aim to tell people what they can and cannot do. We can support sustainable practices that do not result in negative outcomes or ecological unsustainability.

Some of those would include: Decline in soil productivity; wind and water erosion of exposed topsoil; soil compaction; loss of soil organic matter, water holding capacity, and biological activity; salinization and/or desertification. These topics go hand in hand with biodiversity vs monocultures; use of natural vs synthetic inputs; crop rotation and cover crops; composting; soil and water contamination/pollution/treatment.

Those concerns lead to this truth:
The more toward ecological in the farming practices, the more resilient and sustainable the system; the more artificial, chemical, manufactured and synthetic the practices, the less sustainable the system.
For these reasons, I would suggest that as a practical model, sustainable farmers use the evaluation forms provided by Certified Naturally Grown.
CNG is a private, nongovernment, nonprofit certifying agency for small direct market farmers and beekeepers. (I am on the national CNG board of directors and helped craft the guidelines.) While it’s up to farmers themselves whether to be certified by CNG, USDA or any other group, or not, the reason I suggest using the form is that it generally follows the National Organic Program guidelines, but it is also crafted as a worksheet for farmers to determine their own goals — where they are and how they want to get to a more sustainable, natural growing system.

In coming months, MSAN will be working with farmers to develop model farms.
Sustainable farmers will benefit not only from input and expertise from outside groups but from among themselves.
Afterall, that’s central to MSAN: Encouraging Growth of the Sustainable Farming Community in Mississippi through workshops and conferences, farm tours and mentorship programs.

Now that we have a definition of sustainable agriculture that we can live with, and know why we have to have it, let’s apply it, shall we?

Jim PathFinder Ewing is an organic farmer and author, a GGSIM board member and chairman of the GGSIM Food & Farming Committee. His most recent book is “Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating” (Findhorn Press).

For more on Ewing, see:

For more on GGSIM, see:

For more on MSAN, see:

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook or follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit


3 responses to “Sustainable Agriculture: What Is It? And Why?

  1. Thank you for you thoughtful and studied commentary on the definition of sustainability. I agree that the definition of sustainability is far too broad. I think we need to work on our language to bring the concept of sustainability to a personal level. Our language, to date, has been far too nebulous and does not get folks emotionally invested. When we begin to understand that “saving a tree” is “saving ourselves” then we become far more interested and involved. I appreciate your article, and as a fellow Mississippian, am proud of the mission and work of GGSIM!

  2. Pingback: Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network

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