Agricultural Sustainability

Overview

All commentators now agree that food production worldwide will have to increase substantially in the coming years and decades. But there remain very different views about how this should best be achieved. Some still say agriculture will have to expand into new lands, but the competition for land from other human activities makes this an increasingly unlikely and costly solution, particularly if protecting biodiversity and the public goods provided by natural ecosystems are given higher priority.

Others say food production growth must come through redoubled efforts to repeat the approaches of the Green Revolution; or that agricultural systems should embrace only biotechnology or become solely organic. What is clear is that more will need to be made of existing agricultural land.

Agriculture will, in short, have to be intensified. Traditionally agricultural intensification has been defined in three different ways: increasing yields per hectare, increasing cropping intensity (i.e. two or more crops) per unit of land or other inputs (water), and changing land-use from low-value crops or commodities to those that receive higher market prices.

It is now understood that agriculture can negatively affect the environment through overuse of natural resources as inputs or through their use as a sink for waste and pollution (Dobbs and Pretty, 2004). What has also become clear is that the apparent success of some modern agricultural systems has masked significant negative externalities, with environmental and health problems documented and recently costed for some countries. These environmental costs shift conclusions about which agricultural systems are the most efficient, and suggest that alternative practices and systems which reduce negative externalities should be sought.

Sustainable agricultural intensification is defined as producing more output from the same area of land while reducing the negative environmental impacts and at the same time increasing contributions to natural capital and the flow of environmental services.

A sustainable production system would thus exhibit most or all of the following attributes:

  1. Utilising crop varieties and livestock breeds with a high ratio of productivity to use of externally- and internally-derived inputs;
  2. Avoiding the unnecessary use of external inputs;
  3. Harnessing agro-ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen fixation, allelopathy, predation and parasitism;
  4. Minimising use of technologies or practices that have adverse impacts on the environment and human health;
  5. Making productive use of human capital in the form of knowledge and capacity to adapt and innovate and social capital to resolve common landscape-scale problems;
  6. Quantifying and minimising the impacts of system management on externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions, clean water, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and dispersal of pests, pathogens and weeds.

International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability

Jules Pretty is Chief Editor of the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.

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