Organic Farming and the Sustainability
of Agricultural Systems*
Dan Rigby and Daniel Cáceres**
* Publicado en Agricultural
Systems 68 (2001), pp.21-40
** Dan Rigby is a Lecturer in Environmental Economics in the School of
Economic Studies, University of Manchester, UK. Daniel Cáceres is a Professor in the
Department of Rural Development at the National University of Cordoba, Argentina.
The concept of sustainability lies at the heart of the debates that
currently exist over the use of the planet's natural resources, yet there is no consensus
on its meaning despite its intuitive appeal (Park and Seaton, 1996). This paper focuses on
sustainable agriculture, although there is still no consensus on this more specific aspect
Some have argued that, for example, organic farming and sustainable
agriculture are synonymous, others regard them as separate concepts that should not be
equated. The relationship between organic agricultural systems and agricultural
sustainability is therefore examined in this paper.
The reason for the focus on organic agriculture is the rapid
development of the organic sector in Europe and North America. This development has
resulted in an EU average of 2.2% of agricultural land as organic, while in countries such
as Austria and Sweden the figure is over 10% (Lampkin quoted in Soil Association, 2000).
USDA estimates that in the USA the value of retail sales of organic foods in 1999 was
approximately $6 billion, while the number of organic farmers is increasing at a rate of
about 12 percent per year (USDA, 2000). The area of organic and in-conversion land in the
UK doubled between 1999 and 2000. Organic farming, as is discussed below, has a long
history but its sudden elevation from relative obscurity merits a consideration of its
development and nature. As noted above, the focus of the paper is predominantly European
and North American, which is not to devalue the significance of developments in the
Southern Hemisphere but rather to keep the paper reasonably focussed.
As the figures above on the development of the organic market indicate,
the growth in consumer demand for environmentally-friendly, "green" or
chemical-free food products has led to an expansion in Europe and North America of organic
registration schemes. These schemes are seen to guarantee that products are produced in a
certain way, with a range of agricultural inputs prohibited. The effects of these schemes
on producers, and the implications of an expansion of the world market in such goods are
also discussed in the context of agricultural sustainability. This raises issues regarding
the scale, productivity and local organisation of a future sustainable agriculture.
The paper is structured thus: Section 1 reviews the development and
meaning of sustainable agriculture, while Section 2 is concerned with the history and
nature of organic farming. Issues of organic standards and regulation and the relationship
between input use and sustainability is assessed in Section 3. Sections 4 and 5 concern
the degree of isolation of sustainable systems and issues of scale and productivity
respectively. Section 6 concludes the paper focussing on the some of the key issues in the
debates about the organisation of a sustainable agriculture.
1.What Is Meant by Sustainable Agriculture?
Some of the developments in modern agriculture have led to doubts
regarding the long term viability of current production systems are summed up by Hodge:
"Agriculture has come to draw the inputs which it uses from more
distant sources, both spatially and sectorally, to derive an increasing proportion of its
energy supplies from non-renewable sources, to depend upon a more narrow genetic base and
to have an increasing impact on the environment. This is particularly reflected in its
heavy reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, its dependence upon subsidies and
price support and its external costs such as threats to other species, environmental
pollution, habitat destruction and risks to human health and welfare." (Hodge,
The word sustainable is derived from the Latin, sustinere,
meaning to keep in existence, implying permanence or long-term support. In the context of
agricultural production, Ikerd defines a sustainable agriculture as "capable of
maintaining its productivity and usefulness to society over the long run. ... it must be
environmentally-sound, resource-conserving, economically viable and socially supportive,
commercially competitive, and environmentally sound" (1993:30).
Attempting to arrive at a more precise, operational definition of
sustainable agriculture is extremely problematic, partly because there is such a range and
number of parties involved in the debate. This is not surprising, as there would appear to
be little point in advocating a non sustainable agriculture, and so all relevant groups
are fighting it out in the sustainable camp (Francis, 1990). Even the chemical companies
can claim that farmers should purchase their agrochemical products to improve their
financial sustainability (Buttel, 1993, Whitby and Adger, 1996).Therefore the debate over
how to achieve sustainability is plagued by fundamental disputes and disagreements over
which elements of production are acceptable and which are not.
The complex nature of the interrelationships between agricultural
production and the natural environment means that we are far from knowing which methods
and systems in different locations will lead to sustainability (Youngberg and Harwood,
1989). This seems to be a crucial issue in the debate, and leads one to ask, how long
should an agrosystem behave sustainably to be considered sustainable, and how should
sustainability be assessed? It is extremely difficult to determine whether certain
agricultural practices are sustainable or not. It is only in retrospect that sustainable
techniques can be truly identified. The identification of technologies as sustainable
today is questionable, since such identification is based on hypotheses regarding the
sustainable management of natural resources, maintaining their productive capacity through
time. This implies that a constant process of monitoring and reevaluation is required. In
fact, there have been few attempts "to characterise the sustainability of specific
agricultural systems" (Hansen and Jones, 1996: 186).
The approach adopted here rejects an approach to sustainability that
focuses on the description and development of sustainable farming practices irrespective
of the socio-productive features of the farming systems in which they are used. Thus,
sustainability cannot be associated with any particular set of farming practices or
methods (Ikerd, 1993), since the ability of a certain technology to behave as sustainable,
will mostly depend on the peculiarities of the context in which it is used. Crucially,
systems that are sustainable "for one farmer or farm at one point in time may not be
sustainable for another farmer or farm at another point in time" (Ikerd, 1993: 31).
What is a sustainable technique will vary both temporally and spatially.
Despite there being a broad consensus among advocates of sustainable
agriculture that the conventional approach to agriculture is inappropriate, there are
significant differences regarding the type of farming practices which should be developed
in order to reach sustainability. There is far greater degree of agreement regarding the
problems associated with conventional agriculture, than the strategies required to deal
with them. Many "alternative" approaches have been developed with respect to
issues of sustainability, these include Integrated Pest Management (IPM, Caroll and Risch,
1990), Integrated Crop Management, Low Input Agriculture, Low Input Sustainable
Agriculture (LISA, Parr et al., 1990), Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture
(LEISA, Reijntjes et al., 1992), Agroecology (Altieri, 1995), Biodynamic Farming
(Steiner, 1924) and Organic Farming (Scofield, 1986). The references provided explain
these approaches in more detail as do Rigby and Càceres (1997) and Gold (1994).
The focus here is on organic farming, and particularly its relationship
with the concept of sustainability. There are a number of reasons for this emphasis. The
first is that organic farming pre-dates all other approaches to
"environmentally-friendly" agriculture (Scofield, 1986). Second, it is a rapidly
developing agricultural sector in many countries, as the figures above for the EU and
North America indicated. The reasons for this expansion are numerous and there are
variations across countries. Consumer interest has grown in response to repeated food
safety scares, animal welfare concerns as well as more general concerns regarding the
impact of industrial agriculture on the environment. Producers have also been attracted
because of environmental concerns as well as by the potential health impacts of using
agrochemicals and, as is discussed in section 3, by the economics of organic production
relative to the conventional agricultural sector. This latter factor has been affected by
the fact that many governments, including that of the UK (MAFF, 1999, 2000), are
encouraging more producers to adopt organic techniques.
2. Organic Farming
There are, as with sustainable agriculture, a variety of definitions of
organic farming. Mannion (1995) refers to it as a holistic view of agriculture that aims
to reflect the profound interrelationship that exists between farm biota, its production
and the overall environment). Scofield stresses that organic farming does not simply refer
to the use of living materials, but emphasises the concept of wholeness,
implying the "systematic connexion or co-ordination of parts in one whole."
As Scofield points out, the concerns that motivated the early exponents
of organic farming are still very much part of the current debate over agricultural
sustainability, including issues of soil health and structure, the exhaustible nature of
artificial fertilisers, and human health. Northbourne, the person credited with first
using the term organic farming, advocated a society made up of small, self-contained
units, a view that has a strong role in modern environmental movements, where there is
often a rejection of large impersonal units of production, where both people and nature
are viewed as being subordinated to the machine or corporate identity. This rejection of
the concentration of specialised production in fewer, larger units, was most famously
articulated in recent years by Schumacher in 'Small is Beautiful' (1973) (Scofield, 1986).
As Lampkin points out, contemporary organic farming is based on a
number of different approaches which have blended over time to produce the current school
of thought. As the above discussion has indicated, seeking to provide the
definition of any of these approaches is always difficult. A modern definition of organic
farming provided by Lampkin (1994), an authoritative source, states that the aim is:
"to create integrated, humane, environmentally and economically sustainable
production systems, which maximise reliance on farm-derived renewable resources and the
management of ecological and biological processes and interactions, so as to provide
acceptable levels of crop, livestock and human nutrition, protection from pests and
disease, and an appropriate return to the human and other resources" (1994:5). One of
the most significant expositions of the aims and principles of organic farming is that
presented in the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements basic standards
for production and processing (IFOAM, 1998); these are presented in Table 1. As the this
statement makes clear, the principles extend beyond simple biophysical aspects to matters
of justice and responsibility.
|Table 1 The Principle Aims of
Organic Production and Processing
- To produce food of high quality in sufficient quantity.
- To interact in a constructive and life-enhancing way with natural systems and cycles.
- To consider the wider social and ecological impact of the organic production and
- To encourage and enhance biological cycles within the farming system, involving
micro-organisms, soil flora and fauna, plants and animals.
- To develop a valuable and sustainable aquatic ecosystem.
- To maintain and increase long term fertility of soils.
- To maintain the genetic diversity of the production system and its surroundings,
including the protection of plant and wildlife habitats.
- To promote the healthy use and proper care of water, water resources and all life
- To use, as far as possible, renewable resources in locally organised production systems.
- To create a harmonious balance between crop production and animal husbandry.
- To give all livestock conditions of life with due consideration for the basic aspects of
their innate behaviour.
- To minimise all forms of pollution.
- To process organic products using renewable resources.
- To produce fully biodegradable organic products.
- To produce textiles which are long-lasting and of good quality.
- To allow everyone involved in organic production and processing a quality of life which
meets their basic needs and allows an adequate return and satisfaction from their work,
including a safe working environment.
- To progress toward an entire production, processing and distribution chain which is both
socially just and ecologically responsible.
3. Organic Farming, Regulation and Sustainability
One of the aspects of organic production which separates it from many
of the other alternative agricultural movements identified above, is that it has a history
of regulation. Tate explains that this is necessary "to maintain the high ethical
standards of the organic movement, to retain consumer confidence in produce, to encourage
and support genuine organic farmers, and...to provide a basis for traffic in organic
produce across frontiers" (1994:15). MacCormack notes, "unlike
sustainable farming practices, organic farming practices are well-defined--in
fact, organic farming practices are unique, for they are the only ones codified as law. A
complete set of certification procedures governs organic farming, from the soil to the
dining table" (1995:60). This history of regulation makes a discussion of what
organic agriculture actually is considerably easier, since there exist published standards
which producers must comply with. Although there are differences in these standards
between various organic bodies and across national boundaries, these clearly defined
standards represent a foundation on which debate can be based.
There is no real dispute that sustainable agriculture and organic
farming are closely related terms. There is however disagreement on the exact nature of
this relationship. For some, the two are synonymous, for others, equating them is
misleading. Lampkins definition of organic farming, quoted above, talks of
sustainable production systems. Having provided his definition, he goes on to state:
"...sustainability lies at the heart of organic farming and is one of the major
factors determining the acceptability or otherwise of specific production practices"
(1994: 5). Similarly, Henning et al. precede their definition of organic farming,
quoted above, by claiming that "it could serve equally well as a definition of
sustainable agriculture" (1991: 877). Rodale even suggested that
"sustainable was just a polite word for organic farming" (York, 1991:1254 ).
Despite the variety of definitions of organic farming, the general
agreements regarding what is necessary to produce organically are in stark contrast to the
debates and arguments that rage regarding the nature of agricultural sustainability.
However, as Ikerd notes, "mention sustainable agriculture and many people
will think you are talking about organic farming. Some organic farmers will agree. They
think that organic farming is the only system that can sustain agricultural production
over the long run" (1993:30). This view of an extremely close if not synonymous
relationship between organic farming and sustainability is not universal, and it should of
course be noted that the elusive nature of sustainabilitys definition and meaning
imply that equating it to anything is a rather bold step.
Hodge argues against those like Bowler (1992), who view organic farming
as the only truly sustainable type of agriculture, contending that this is only true if
non-sustainability is identified through the use of non-renewable resources, especially
inorganic chemicals. In opposition to this position he states that: "...it must be
questionable as to whether organic farming, as currently practised, can reasonably be
regarded as sustainable" (1993:4). Factors that Hodge uses to support his argument
include uncertainty regarding nitrate losses from conventional and organic farming,
particularly in light of the difficulty in controlling nutrient applications from organic
manures. Concerns over the long term-maintenance of potassium levels in soils, especially
on dairy farms, and the issue of soil erosion are also cited. The conclusion drawn is that
"it is thus a mistake to equate sustainable agricultural systems with
organic ones. A restriction on the use of inorganic chemicals is not a
sufficient condition for sustainability, but it may not even be a necessary
Pretty (1995:9) argues that although "organic agriculture is
generally a form of sustainable agriculture", it can also have negative environmental
effects. These include the leaching of nitrates from field under legumes, the
volatilisation of ammonia from livestock waste and the accumulation of heavy metals in
soil following the application of Bordeaux mixture.
Some of the research that has been carried out regarding the historical
relationship between agricultural systems and the sustainability of the societies they
support, illustrates the point that a farming system need not be modern, mechanised, and
using synthetic chemicals to be profoundly unsustainable. Carter and Dale (1974), in a
historical review of the relationship between the soil, agricultural systems and the
civilisations they have supported, explain how the fertility of large areas of Greece,
Lebanon, Crete and North Africa was destroyed by low input, chemical-free unsustainable
agricultural practices. The farmers whose agricultural practices contributed to this
erosion and desolation were undoubtedly organic producers in terms of the inputs used, but
they were "organic by neglect".
This point is not merely of historical interest, examples of the
organic by neglect approach are still witnessed today. Hall, an organic inspector with the
Organic Crop Improvement Association (1) (OCIA) in the USA, states that this idea that a
crop is organic because nothing has been put on it is all too common. This, he
argues, is not a sustainable approach and "does a major disservice to the majority of
organic farmers who are making excellent progress in developing healthy and naturally
resilient whole farm systems" (Hall, 1996a)
These points support the view that focusing on particular inputs or
tools in the identification of sustainable agricultural systems is insufficient. In
response it might be argued that inputs and tillage methods are only one part of the
picture, that organic production goes beyond these narrow production issues. Lampkin and
Measures (1995:3) write that "The term sustainable is used in its widest
sense, to encompass not just conservation of non-renewable resources (soil, energy,
minerals) but also issues of environmental, economic and social sustainability." The
IFOAM standards in Table 1 refer to the need "to interact in a constructive and
life-enhancing way with natural systems and cycles
to consider the wider social and
ecological impact of the organic production and processing system
to encourage and
enhance biological cycles within the farming system, involving micro-organisms, soil flora
and fauna, plants and animals
to progress toward an entire production, processing and
distribution chain which is both socially just and ecologically responsible"(1998:
3). Clearly, the standards do not exist in a vacuum they represent an attempt to move from
general principles, such as these from IFOAM, to specific practices and inputs, whether
recommended or prohibited.
The difficulty is that incorporating these wider concerns into
definitions of, and standards for, organic farming is problematical. Standards are far
more able to refer to prohibited inputs than to deal with precise criteria for the
assessment of whether producers and processors are acting in a manner which is
"socially just" or "ecologically responsible". The significance of
this increases when one considers the massive expansion of the organic sector currently
underway in many countries, where the motivations of newly converting organic producers
may well be different from the traditional organic producer who associated
closely with these broader principles.
This issue of the range of motives that people may have for adopting
organic techniques must be carefully considered. While many adopting organic practices are
doing so for lifestyle and more holistic reasons, the issue of higher market prices for
organic goods can not be ignored. Lampkin and Measures (1995) report, for example, organic
prices in the UK between 50% and 100% above conventional prices for cereals and
vegetables. It seems highly probable that these economics factors are driving the
conversion decision for many new organic producers in contrast to the past. In the UK,
this changing profile of the new organic producer is a result of the number of established
conventional producers who are now converting to organic production, something which the
number of calls to the Organic Conversion Information Service (OCIS) reflects. In the
context of the prolonged crisis in large sections of British agriculture the possibility
must therefore exist of producers becoming organic to pursue these premiums; their motive
may not be sustainability in its widest sense, but marketing at its most strategic.
A greater understanding of the range of motives for adopting organic
techniques is needed, and the implications of this range of motives for any discussion of
the relationship between organic and sustainable farming practices must be considered.
Weymes (1990) found that 9% of the Canadian organic farmers surveyed stated that
profitability was their primary reason for adopting organic farming (see Rigby et al..,
2000a, Padel and Lampkin, 1994, Padel, 1994, MacRae et al., 1990, Kramer, 1984, and
Blobaum, 1983, for more on the motives of alternative farmers). Fairweather and Campbell
(1996) found that over a third of the organic farmers they interviewed would switch to
conventional production if premiums decreased, and on this basis distinguished between
"pragmatic organic" and "committed organic" farmers.
It is likely that even the most elaborate set of production standards
could not rule out the possibility of one or more complying farmer having an unsustainable
aspect to their production system. Part of the problem is that these organic schemes must
focus on prohibiting or encouraging the use of particular inputs or tools, whereas it is
the use of these things that determines a systems sustainability. This orientation
on specific inputs is hardly surprising since these schemes require producers to either be
registered or not; there can be no grey areas, the produce is sold either with the organic
symbol, or without. The criteria must therefore be clear, well-defined and open to
inspection. Objectives such as the sustainability of farm families, farm workers and rural
communities, which are frequently espoused by organic groups, are simply not amenable to
this type of regulation. Individual producers may be committed to such goals, but most
standards do not include them, and it is difficult to see how they could.
Hall (1996b), an OCIA inspector, states "The best, most
sustainable farms that I have ever been on have all been organic-truly inspirational
stuff. I have also been on so-called organic farms with 1050 acres of soybeans out of 1100
acres total...Others have even less rotation than many conventional farms. The
sustainability of organic farms runs across the entire range of sustainability, just like
it does for conventional farms."
An obvious example of the need to have clear cut standards is the
prohibition of synthetic chemical which is one of the defining properties of organic
farming systems. Two of the basic characteristics of organic systems are "the
avoidance of fertilisers in the form of soluble mineral salts" and "the
prohibition of agro-chemical pesticides" (Soil Association, 1992:13). There are
problems with this grouping together of synthetic chemical inputs. Putting mineral
fertilisers in the same category as synthetic pesticides may be as much a result of an
antipathy towards science and the industrialisation of agriculture, as it is of scientific
categorisation. For example, fertilisers supply the same nutrients as organic manure, but
in a more soluble form. Many pesticides are biocides which have no natural equivalent.
Regarding both types of chemical inputs as equally unsuitable for sustainable farming is
therefore extremely debatable. It would appear likely that, in appropriate agroecological
conditions, the judicious use of nitrogenous fertiliser alongside other measures to
maintain soil fertility is sustainable.
The issues discussed above point towards a rejection of the view that
organic farming is simply the practical implementation of sustainable agricultures
principles, or indeed that, as has been claimed, it represents the pinnacle of sustainable
agriculture. This does not imply that organic agriculture is unsustainable. Rather, the
notion of sustainability is such a "site-specific, individualistic, dynamic
concept" (Ikerd, 1993:31), that arguing that one particular set of codified
production practices are its practical expression seems incorrect and likely to attract
unnecessary criticism. In this sense, the sustainability concept may be viewed similarly
to appropriate technology, in that the appropriateness of particular technologies will
also vary temporally and spatially (see McInerney, 1978).
The information that is required to inform this debate further is
detailed data regarding the environmental impacts of organic production systems. Such
information is sparse, although the increased interest in the sector over recent years has
produced a series of initiatives investigating these matters, some of which have reported.
EXPAND HERE ON IMPACT ASSESSMENTS.
Work on impact assessment raises the issue of which are the key aspects
of a systems performance that should be measured, that is, what are the key aspects
of agricultural sustainability and what are the associated indicators that should be
monitored. This is a rapidly developing area of work which is reviewed by Rigby et al.
(1999), Moxey (1998) and Glen and Pannell (1998). Specific examples of work on
constructing indicators of agricultural sustainability are to be found in Rigby et al. (2000b),
Müller (1998), Bockstaller et al. (1997), Gomez et al. (1996), Swete-Kelly
(1996) and Taylor et al. (1993).
Part of the difficulty in assessing the sustainability of agricultural
systems, an issue which many of the papers cited above address, is the fact that both the
units of measurement and the appropriate scales for measurement differ both within and
across the commonly identified economic, biophysical and social dimensions. For example,
consideration of the effects of organic production on farm margins, soil fertility and
rural employment are difficult to combine in an overall measure. Not so problematic if the
effects are all in the same direction, but when one starts to consider trade-offs, as one
indicator increases and another falls, across different dimensions then this factor
becomes more significant. This is an issue which will not be solved simply by greater
knowledge of the impacts of different production systems; even with complete information
regarding impacts one will still have to consider trade-offs with movement towards targets
in some respects accompanied by reverses in others.
Despite this complication of trade-offs and the need for judgements to
be made about priorities, the notion of sustainability as a goal, a signpost rather than a
destination, is still useful (Ikerd, 1997). Thought of in this way, the convergence to
agricultural sustainability may be viewed as an asymptotic process.
Two other issues that complicate the sustainability assessment of
agricultural production systems in general, and organic systems in particular are now
4. The Degree of Isolation of Sustainable Systems.
The first issue is how broad should the consideration be, when
one considers the sustainability of farming systems. For example, can a farm on which no
synthetic chemicals are used, and which may be considered sustainable in terms of its
tillage and rotational practices, be sustainable if it uses electricity generated from
fossil fuels or nuclear power? Standards for organic food production do not deal with the
sustainability of energy sources, and it is difficult to see how they could. However, one
might argue that concentrating on very specific, on-farm, aspects of crop and livestock
production for farming systems which are based on unsustainable energy sources is
problematical. Expecting producers who aspire to sustainability to generate their own
electricity seems unrealistic (although Amish communities do not connect to electricity
power grids, Stinner et al., 1989), but the sustainability of energy
sources is an issue worth consideration before any alternative agricultural approach
claims that it is sustainable. Issues of energy and thermodynamics have played a central
role in the development of ecological economics (Costanza, 1991), with analysis based on
entropy (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971, 1976) and emergy (Odum, XXXX) being cases in point (see
Martinez-Alier, 1987, for a review of the history of agricultural energetics).
This issue of sustainable energy sources highlights a more general
point about the extent to which sustainable farming systems should attempt to isolate
themselves from the rest of unsustainable society. For example, given that
many alternative agricultural philosophies espouse a return to the land, and a rejection
of large-scale, market-orientated production in the cities, to what extent is contact, and
more specifically trade, with this sector acceptable. The use on farms of agricultural
machinery, powered by fossil fuels, to produce goods to sell back to
unsustainable society may be viewed as compromising such farming systems
MacCormack focuses on the degree to which farming systems are closed
when distinguishing between organic and sustainable agriculture. He argues that
sustainability "implies a goal of closed system farming, meaning that
farms approach self-sufficiency and require little outside input". It is on this
basis that he claims that "many organic producers wonder whether any farm system can
ever be sustainable in the pure sense. After all, organic systems still require
cultivation, soil management inputs, processing, shipping, trucks, air freight,....all of
which use oil, not usually produced on farms" (1995:61).
The issue of trade in respect of agricultural sustainability assessment
is becoming increasingly important with respect to organic farming. As the demand for
organic food grows (the UK currently imports 70% of its organic fruit and vegetables), so
the international trade in organic products expands. A simple inspection of the organic
produce range in a British supermarket indicates that organic vegetables are being flown
into the UK from Africa and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere. Even if the practices
used on-farm were accepted as exemplary, the implications in terms of energy use and
emissions of global warming gases are significant. This highlights another issue of
importance when it comes to sustainability assessments which is the appropriate level of
measurement (farm plot, farm household, watershed, region etc). An assessment at the plot
and farm household level of the production system used to produce organic vegetables in
Kenya may indicate an extremely sustainable production system. An assessment of food miles
(the distance products travel between producer and consumer) and energy use once these
have been flown to the UK for sale is likely to provide very different insights.
5. The Scale and Productivity of Sustainable Systems
At one level, there is little doubt that some farming systems
like, for example, those of the Amish are sustainable at the farm level, since they
"sustained their culture for hundreds if not thousands of years" (Stinner et
al., 1989:77). Does such a form of agricultural production represent a path to
sustainability that can be followed by others? If one strips away the specifics of the
religious and cultural aspects of these communities and focuses on the production system,
then the issue that seems to prevent this being a widespread interpretation may concern
productivity levels. If one is considering the sustainability of farming systems then this
issue of productivity is worth some attention. The question is whether it is possible to
design sustainable farming systems that have productivity rates high enough to maintain
current demographic trends in developing countries, which sees the population becomes
increasingly urbanised and divorced from agricultural production. The ability of a farming
system to sustain those people who work within it indefinitely, need not be the sole test
of sustainability. The issue of providing food and fibre for the non-agricultural
population needs also to be addressed. If sustainable agriculture necessarily implies
small-scale, more labour-intensive farming, then does this require a large scale return to
the land, and an end to much of todays industrial and manufacturing production as
such large urban populations could not be maintained in the context of this form of
The answer here is uncertain, but it is undoubtedly mistaken to simply
equate sustainable agriculture with low-yield farming. However, this issue of productivity
and sustainability features heavily in the literature, Zilberman et al. comment
"While organic farming and traditional crop rotations may have a significant role in
a sustainable future, we do not believe that the keys to sustainability are the
technologies of the past...we cannot turn the clock back and still feed the current human
population" (1997:65). Avery, a former agricultural analyst for the U.S. Department
of State, is one of the most forceful proponents of this view. His report Saving the
Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming
(Hudson Institute, 1981) counterposes "high-yield farming" with organic farming,
where the latter represents a most serious threat to biodiversity because, in his view,
the lower yields it generates would cause large areas of species-rich wildlife habitats to
be lost to cultivation.: "the public has been told that the organic approach to
farming is kinder to the environment. The public has not been told that its low yields
would force us to destroy millions of square miles of additional wildlands" (Avery
quoted in BCPC, 1997)
There may be many definitions of sustainable agriculture, but very many
of them stress that such a system must be able to "provide for the food and fiber
needs of society, must meet the needs of the current generation,....must be capable of
maintaining its productivity and value to human society" (Ikerd, 1993:30). In
industrialised countries conversion to, for example, organic farming is commonly
associated with lower yields than with conventional agriculture. Even if one accepts this
for the developed world, the situation in developing countries is rather different, with
many producers farming at relatively low levels of intensity. In this situation, organic
techniques can lead to yields increased threefold and more (la Prairie, 1996), and the
possible generation of agricultural surplus for trade. Some peoples vision of a
sustainable agriculture may entail a "patchwork" countryside of small holdings
and a greatly increased rural population. Sustainable agriculture is not viewed in this
way by others, and so the issue of productivity and how these food and fibre needs are to
be met, is one of the great issues of debate in the area.
The point is that when the discussion of sustainable agricultural
production occurs, some clarity regarding the scale of productivity involved, and how
closed or open the system should be, in terms of energy and markets for example, would be
helpful. To some advocates of, for example, organic and biodynamic farming, a return to
small-scale production, small communities and a return to some form of spiritual link
between farmer and the soil is precisely what they advocate. To others who utterly reject
such notions such a considerable reorganisation of production is not envisaged at all,
rather sustainable agricultural systems much more similar to todays are imagined.
This relates directly to the often neglected aspect of sustainable agriculture: its social
It seems that although sustainable farming systems are now advocated
almost universally, there is great disagreement regarding even the basis on which systems
should be judged. Whether farms should be self-sufficient, the degree to which they should
trade with the rest of society, the question of energy sources and whether sustainability
requires a return to small-scale, labour-intensive agricultural production.
There seems to be little benefit in the followers of various
alternative agricultural schools of thought claiming that they represent the true path to
sustainability. This is primarily because the view that sustainable agriculture varies in
both time and space, is only capable of being identified in retrospect, over an uncertain
time period, leads to sustainability being viewed as a process. This lack of uncertainty
now about whether practices and process are indeed sustainable should not be seen as a
sanctioning of passivity or complacency. Ikerd (1997) comments that "what we can do
is make logical, informed judgements concerning the likelihood that something
will or will not be sustainable." Rather than asserting, or denying, whether certain
agricultural movements are the approach to sustainable agriculture, the question
must be: are producers moving in the right direction? Given local conditions, and the
agricultural and ecological history of an area, are the agricultural systems operating
there becoming more sustainable, are they coming closer to achieving a goal that is
constantly being refined and redefined as knowledge and attitudes change?
This paper has focused on agricultural sustainability, and its
relationship to various alternative agricultural approaches. It has, quite deliberately,
not offered any new definitions of sustainability or sustainable agriculture. Sustainable
practices will vary both temporally and spatially and can only truly be identified in
retrospect. It is not simply a question of tools and inputs, but the context in which they
This raises the possibility of sustainability being considered so vague
a concept that it has little meaning and should be discarded. This issue is considered in
a more general form by Jacobs (1995). Noting that there are at least 386 definitions of
sustainable development, and that both Mrs Thatcher and Friends of the Earth have signed
up to it, he asks if it is meaningless. Jacobs answers no because:
"...this is to mistake what it means for a political principle to be meaningful.
There are far more than 386 definitions of democracy, but that doesnt mean the
concept is meaningless. Nor does the fact that different people disagree on what counts as
democracy. Key political principles like democracy...are contestable -they are open to
different interpretations- but they carry a core meaning...which is substantive and
important." (1995:9). Agricultural sustainability may be considered in the same way.
The notion that agricultural sustainability should be regarded as a
process rather than as a prescribed set of practices, and that it has a generalised core
meaning, may pose problems when one wishes to assess the sustainability of systems. Pretty
argues that: "At the farm or community level, it is possible for actors to weigh up,
trade off and agree on these criteria for measuring trends in sustainability. But as we
move to higher levels....to districts, regions and countries, it becomes increasingly
difficult to do this in any meaningful way" (1995:11).
It has been noted that synthetic chemical use or non-use is not a
particularly rigorous scientific basis on which to determine a systems
sustainability, however this dichotomy has been used in the discussion because of the
prohibition of synthetic chemical inputs in organic farming. Rather than attempting to
categorise certain farming methods as sustainable, which would contradict the view of
sustainability expressed above, some issues that merit attention have been highlighted.
The extent to which any farming system which is intended to be
sustainable should be linked to an unsustainable society is one such issue. These links
may take the form of purchased inputs, including energy, or the sale of farm output.
Clearly no farming system can entirely seal itself off from the rest of the planet, but
the question is whether sustainable farming systems should aspire to as great a degree of
self-sufficiency and self reliance as possible.
It has been noted that the lack of consensus regarding exactly what
organic farming and agricultural sustainability mean, is a problem when discussing the
relationship between them. The existence of published standards for organic production is
a great advance in this respect. In an area of research plagued by different definitions,
interpretations and meanings, these standards offer a firm basis for discussion and
debate. The problem that subsequently arises, is that one may simply try to reduce organic
production to what is contained in these standards, whereas for many involved, organic
production goes far beyond this. Organic farming may therefore be viewed as being pulled
in two different directions. On the one hand, greater regulation is required for the
reasons Tate (1994) gives above, and yet this regulation can not cover the full range of
motives and aspirations of organic farmers.
Duesing, in an article entitled "Is Organic Enough?", deals
with this divergence between some of the more spiritual aspects of organic farming and the
greater standardisation associated with regulation. He notes that pre-regulation organic
farming meant many different things to many different people: "Its lack of specific
definition allowed many of us to associate it with certain important characteristics of
scale, locality, control, knowledge, nutrition, social justice, participation,
grower/eater relationships and the connections with schools and communities." Duesing
goes on to contrast this with the current situation. He argues that "these desirable
food system characteristics seem threatened as the definition of organic farming and food
is narrowed to a set of standards which deal with growing and processing methods
Clearly this relationship between greater regulation and the diverse
motivations and practices of organic farmers poses a dilemma for the organic movement. If
consumers are to be certain that the products they buy are genuinely organic, and are to
be able to find out exactly what this means, then unless they know the producer directly,
greater standardisation seems inevitable. There appear therefore to be contradictory
pressures on the organic movement, from outside and within. Some producers wish to retain
small, local organic markets where food miles are minimised, while others look to greater
national and international co-ordination of standards and production methods.
As organic standards become established in an increasing number of
countries, and as these standards become more co-ordinated and integrated, the degree to
which the organic producer and organic consumer may be geographically separated grows.
Furthermore, the trade in organic farm inputs may also grow, with organic producers having
the option of buying in mulch or organic fertilisers from distant sources. There may be
doubts regarding the sustainability of the systems which have generated these purchased
inputs. In addition, organic producers may be sceptical of such developments because they
farm in this way to escape from many aspects of the global trade in foodstuffs, and aim to
produce for local markets because of concern regarding the energy efficiency implications
of such a trade in organic products.
These are not hypothetical issues. Duesing (1995) cites a report in
Organic Food Business News revealing that the Dole food multinational brought Argentinian
producers to the USA to learn organic techniques which could then be used to produce
vegetables for export from South to North America. Duesing also refers to North
Californian organic farms using manure from South Californian dairy enterprises, which
themselves use feedgrain from the Midwest. The energy efficiency implications of such
arrangements, particularly if the resulting organic produce is then shipped to the East
Coast, are worthy of consideration. Duesing, an organic farmer in North America, also
reports having been approached with offers of organic compost from Brazil and peat moss
substitutes from the Philippines.
This relates to the earlier point regarding the different vision that
different parties have of a future sustainable agriculture. The arguments being raised by
Duesing appear to fit with the vision of farms producing for local consumers. For organic
producers with this philosophy, the greater involvement of government and certifying
bodies, whom they have to fund, can be a source of discontent. There can be resentment of
this perceived interference, and a sense of the farmers sovereignty being weakened,
both of which contradict the desire for the food system to be "local and
organic" (Duesing, 1995). Patrick Madden, President of the World Sustainable
Agriculture Association, also expresses concern regarding the development of international
standards and the trade they permit. He writes "I am frankly alarmed by the trend of
globalisation of trade (especially in agriculture)." Madden continues:
"I am very concerned that the establishment of national and
international certification standards will draw huge multinational organisations into that
segment of agriculture, and that countless family farms will become extinct, and many
rural communities will be devastated, and food security will be worsened in very many
The attempt to produce overly prescriptive descriptions of sustainable
agriculture may be of little use, but the general vision one has for such systems should
be explicit. Disagreements between actors and organisations over how a more sustainable
agriculture can be developed may be the result of, for example, differing opinions
regarding local production versus greater trade, or greater regulation versus greater
producer autonomy. If there is a contradiction between the sustainability ethos of
alternative farming, which some may associate with a rejection of consumerism, and the
realities of standardised, high-volume modern food markets, then it needs to be addressed
to aid the debate regarding sustainable agriculture.
In addition to the issue of food miles and energy efficiency, another
aspect of the debate which requires clarification concerns the scale of production
possible, or desirable, in sustainable systems. This concerns the environmental effects of
the trend towards larger farm sizes in Europe and North America, and the consequences of
this trend for food production levels. Some regard larger farm sizes as generally implying
greater environmental costs. A recent survey in the UK (2) found that 54% of conventional,
and 80% of organic horticultural producers thought that the trend toward larger farm sizes
was a bad thing in environmental terms. As a result, people may view sustainable
agriculture in terms of smaller enterprises, hence Duesings view of "small
scale, local eating". Some, like Pretty (1995:12) argue that "sustainable
farming can be compatible with small or large farms". For others, discussion of
sustainability is bound up with ideas of small units, family farms,- a patchwork
countryside of small producers producing for local markets.
The issue of the scale of production in a future sustainable
agriculture is closely connected with the issue of productivity. As capital has been
substituted for labour in industrialised agriculture, the majority of the population has
become urbanised and separated from food production. Whether a transition to, for example,
organic agriculture could maintain this predominately non-agricultural population is a
matter of debate. The same survey of horticultural producers in the UK indicated that
although 75% of conventional producers believed that organic farming methods were better
for the environment, only 13% thought that such techniques could produce sufficient food
and fibre for society. Indeed, only 73% of the organic horticulturalists interviewed
believed that the necessary food and fibre could be produced.
For those who do not see sustainable agriculture as necessarily
implying the end of large-scale farming, who envisage the sector continuing to produce
food for an urban population which has little or no contact with agricultural producers,
then greater regulation and policing of standards is crucial. In this scenario producers
and consumers will continue to be geographically separate, and the certification and
inspection process will provide the link between organic producer and consumer. For those
who seek a closing of the gap between producer and consumer, and between the population
and the processes by which food is generated, then falling into "the same patterns of
scale, distance and control as the conventional food system" (Duesing, 1995:24) poses
1. The OCIA is the largest of five nationwide certifying agencies in the USA, it
certifies about 20% of the 5000 registered producers (Anton and Frazao, 1993).
2. These data were collected as part of ESRC project
"Adoption of Sustainable Agricultural Technologies" at the University of
Manchester in 1996.
Altieri, M (1995). Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture.
Westview Press and Intermediate Technology: London.
Anton, J and Frazao, B (1993) Organic Certification: Standards in the Works.
Agricultural Outlook: August, 26-31.
Blobaum, R (1983) Barriers to Conversion to Organic Farming Practices in the Midwestern
United States in Environmentally Sound Agriculture. Edited by Lockeretz, W: Praeger:
Bockstaller, C., Girardin, P., and van der Verf, H.M. (1997) Use of agro-ecological
indicators for the evaluation of farming systems. European Journal of Agronomy, 7,
Bowler, I (1992) Sustainable Agriculture as an Alternative Path of Farm Business
Development. in Bowler, Bryant and Nellis (Eds) Contemporary Rural Systems in Transition.
British Crop Protection Council (1997) Widespread Organic Farming - A danger to the
Planet. BCPC News Release, 18.11.97.
Buttel, F H (1993) The Sociology of Agricultural Sustainability: Some Observations on
the Future of Sustainable Agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 46:
Caroll, C R and Risch, S (1990). An evaluation of ants as possible candidates for
biological control in tropical annual agroecosystems. In Gliessman, S R Agroecology.
Researching the Ecological Basis for Sustainable Agriculture. :30-46, Springer-Verlag: New
Carter, V and Dale, T (1974). Topsoil and Civilisation. University of Oklahoma Press.
Costanza, R. (Ed) (1991) Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of
Sustainability. Columbia University Press, New York.
Duesing, W (1995) Is Organic Enough? The Natural Farmer 2(27). Northeast Organic
Farming Association Interstate, Connecticut.
Fairweather, J R and Campbell, H (1996) The Decision Making of Organic and Conventional
Agricultural Producers. AERU Research Report No.233, Lincoln University, New Zealand,
Francis, C (1990) Sustainable Agriculture: Myths and Realities. Journal of Sustainable
Agriculture. 1(1): 97-99.
Georgescu-Roegen (1971) The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Harvard University
Georgescu-Roegen (1976) Energy and Economic Myths: Institutional and Analytical
Economic Essays. Pergamon, Oxford.
Glenn, N.A. and Pannell, D.J. (1998) The Economics and Application of Sustainability
Indicators in Agriculture, Paper presented at the 42nd Annual Conference of the Australian
Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, University of New England, Armidale, Jan
Gold, M (1994). Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms. SRB 94-05, USDA
National Agricultural Library (NAL).
Gomez, A.A., Kelly, D.E., Syers, J.K. and K.J. Coughlan (1996) Measuring Sustainability
of Agricultural Systems at the Farm Level. Methods for Assessing Soil Quality, SSSA
Special Publication 49: 401-409.
Hall, B (1996a) Posting to the Sanet-Mg Sustainable Agriculture Internet Discussion
Hall, B (1996b) Posting to the Sanet-Mg Sustainable Agriculture Internet Discussion
Hansen, J W and Jones, J W (1996) A Systems Framework for Characterising Farm
Sustainability. Agricultural Systems, 51: 185-201.
Henning, J Baker L and Thomassin P (1991). Economic issues in organic agriculture.
Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics. 39: 877-889.
Hodge, I (1993). Sustainability: Putting Principles into Practice. An Application to
Agricultural Systems. Paper presented to 'Rural Economy and Society Study Group', Royal
Holloway College, December 1993.
Hostetler, J, A (1980) Amish Society. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.
Ikerd, J (1993). Two Related but Distinctly Different Concepts: Organic Farming and
Sustainable Agriculture. Small Farm Today. 10(1): 30-31.
Ikerd, J (1997) Toward an Economics of Sustainability. Dept of Agricultural Economics,
University of Missouri (http://www.ssu.missouri.edu/faculty/JIkerd/papers/econ-sus.htm)
Jacobs, M (1995) Sustainable Development-From Broad Rhetoric to Local Reality.
Conference Proceedings from Agenda 21 in Cheshire, 1 December 1994, Cheshire County
Council, Document No.493..
Kramer, D (1984) Problems Facing Canadian Farmers using Organic Methods. In Pesticide
Policy: The Environmental Imperative. Edited by Schrecker and Vles. Friends of the Earth,
Lampkin, N and Padel, S (1994) The Economics of Organic Farming. An International
Perspective. CAB International: Oxford.
Lampkin, N (1994) Organic Farming: Sustainable Agriculture in Practice in The Economics
of Organic Farming. An International Perspective. Edited by Lampkin and Padel, CAB
Lampkin, N and Measures, M (1995). 1995/96 Organic Farm Management Handbook. University
of Wales, Aberystwyth. Elm Farm Research Centre.
MacCormack, H (1995) Sustainable Agriculture versus Organic Farming. In 'What is
Sustainable Agriculture?' Chapter 3 in Planting the Future: Developing an Agriculture that
Sustains Land and Community. Edited by E.Bird, G.Bultena and J.Gardner. Iowa State
University Press: 60-61.
MacRae, R, Hill, S, Mehuys, G and Henning, J (1990) Farm-Scale Agronomic and Economic
Conversion from Conventional to Sustainable Agriculture. Advances in Agronomy. 43:
Madden, P (1996) Posting to the Sanet-Mg Sustainable Agriculture Internet Discussion
MAFF (2000) Elliot Morley announces massive organic expansion. Press Release 195/00.
MAFF (1999) Boost for organic farming: new organic farming scheme launched. Press
McInerney, J (1978) The Technology of Rural Development. World Bank Staff Working Paper
No.295. Washington DC: USA.
Mannion, A M (1995) Agriculture and Environmental Change. Temporal and Spatial
Dimensions. Sussex: Wiley.
Martinez-Alier, j (1987) Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment and Society.
Moxey, A (1998) Cross-Cutting Issues In Developing Agri-Environmental Indicators. Paper
Presented At OECD Workshop On Agri-Environmental Indicators Plenary Session 1, York,
Müller, S. (1998) Evaluating the sustainability of agriculture. GTZ, Eschborn,
Northbourne, Lord (1940) Look to the Land. J.M. Dent: London.
Padel, S (1994) Adoption of Organic Farming as an example of the Diffusion of an
Innovation. Centre for Organic Husbandry and Agroecology, University of Wales, Discussion
Padel, S. and N. Lampkin (1994) Conversion to Organic Farming: An Overview. Chapter 17
of Lampkin and Padel (1994).
Park, J and Seaton, RAF (1996) Integrative Research and Sustainable Agriculture.
Agricultural Systems 50: 81-100.
Parr, J et al. (1990). Sustainable Agriculture in the United States. In Sustainable
Agricultural Systems, edited by Clive Edwards et al.. Ankeny IA: Soil and Water
Conservation Society: 52.
la Prairie, H (1996) Is Organic Agriculture a Possible Solution to World Hunger? IFOAM
Press Release. Copenhagen, 2/5/1996
Pretty, J (1995) Regenerating Agriculture. Policies and Practice for Sustainability and
Self-Reliance. Earthscan, London.
Reijntjes, C, Bertus, H, Water-Bayer, A (1992) Farming the Future: An Introduction to
Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture. London: Macmillan.
Rigby, D, Young, T and M.Burton (2000a) Why do farmers opt in or opt out of organic
production? A review of the evidence. Symposium paper presented at the 2000 Agricultural
Economics Society Conference, Manchester.
Rigby, D, Woodhouse, P, Young, T and M. Burton (2000b) Constructing a Farm Level
Indicator of Agricultural Sustainability. Paper presented at the 2000 Agricultural
Economics Society Conference, Manchester.
Rigby, D., Howlett, D. and P. Woodhouse (1999) A Review of Indicators of Agricultural
and Rural Livelihood Sustainability. Working Paper 1 in the series Sustainability
Indicators for Natural Resource Management & Policy. IDPM,
University of Manchester.
Rigby, D and Càceres, D (1997) The Sustainability of Agricultural Systems. Working
Paper 10 in Rural Resources, Rural Livelihoods series, Institute for
Development Policy and Management, Manchester.
Sanet-Mg (1996) This is a sustainable agriculture network Discussion list. One may
subscribe to it at firstname.lastname@example.org. There was an extensive debate among subscribers
on the relationship between organic farming and sustainable agriculture in the first half
Schumacher, E (1973). Small is Beautiful. Blond and Briggs: London.
Scofield, A (1986). Organic Farming-The Origin of the Name. Biological Agriculture and
Horticulture. 4: 1-5.
Soil Association (1992) Standards for Organic Food and Farming. Bristol: UK.
Soil Association (2000a) Briefing Paper Organic Facts and Figures - May
2000. Soil Association, Bristol.
Steiner, R (1924). Agriculture. A Course of Eight Lectures. Third edition, Biodynamic
Stinner, D H, Paoletti, M G and Stinner, B R (1989). In search of traditional farm
wisdom for a more sustainable agriculture: a study of Amish farming and society.
Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 27: 77-90.
Swete-Kelly, D. (1996) Development and evaluation of sustainable production systems for
steeplands lessons for the South Pacific. In: Sustainable land management in the
South Pacific. Network document no. 19, IBSRAM.
Tate, W B (1994) The Development of the Organic Industry and Market: An International
Perspective in The Economics of Organic Farming. An International Perspective. Edited by
Lampkin and Padel.
Taylor, D, Mohamed, Z, Shamsudin, M, Mohayidin and Chiew,E. (1993) Creating a Farmer
Sustainability Index: A Malaysian Case Study. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture.
USDA (2000) Glickman Announces New Proposal For National Organic Standards. USDA News
Release No. 0074.00.
Weymes, E (1990) The Market for Organic Foods: a Canada-Wide Survey. Faculty of
Administration, University of Regina, Saskatchewan.
Whitby, M and Adger, W N (1996) Natural and Reproductive Capital and the Sustainability
of Land Use in the UK. Journal of Agricultural Economics. 47(1), 50-56.
York Jr, E T (1991) Agricultural Sustainability and Its Implications to the
Horticulture Profession and the Ability to Meet Global Food Needs. HortScience. 26 (10):
Youngberg, G and Harwood, R (1989). Sustainable Farming Systems: Needs and
Opportunities. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture. 4(3&4): 100.
Zilberman, D, Khanna, M and Lipper, L (1997) Economics of new technologies for
sustainable agriculture. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 41, 1:
Zook, L (1994) The Amish Farm and Alternative Agriculture: A Comparison. Journal of
Agriculture. 4(4): 21-30.