What the Hell Does “Sustainable” Mean, Anyway?

“Sustainable” is a term that is appearing much in the news these days, and it is often paired with the word, “local” and “agriculture,” or “foodshed.”

I’d like to take a moment here to discuss what “sustainable” actually means, and then we can pair it with the term, “agriculture” to see if I can build an understanding of what exactly I am talking about when I say, “sustainable agriculture.” Because, while I have in my mind a fairly specific idea, I may not be conveying it very well to readers who may not have as much background in farming, gardening and the study of food to really grasp what it is I mean.

First of all, the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives as a primary definition of “sustainable” the somewhat redundant statement: “capable of being sustained.” When one looks up “sustain,” one learns that the primary definition is “to give support or relief to,” while the secondary definition is “to supply with sustainance, or to nourish,” and the tertiary definition is “to keep up or prolong.”

While the primary and secondary definitions are tangentially applicable (particularly the secondary meaning), it is in the tertiary definition that we find the crux of the matter. Something which is sustainable is something which can be kept up or prolonged over a period of time.

When you return to the entry for the word “sustainable,” you find that the secondary meaning is an explication of how the word relates to agriculture: “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

So, when I talk about “sustainable agriculture,” I am not necessarily talking about only organic farming, and when I talk about “sustainable foodways,” I do not intrinsically mean only “local, vegetarian, organic, traditionally-farmed, or non-genetically-modified” foods and food systems. To be “sustainable,” a farming practice does not necessarily have to be anti-modern; “sustainability” does not always infer a preference for traditional methods over technology.


To really understand what sustainability means, one must examine the large picture, and imagine the hundreds of thousands of interactions between human activity and environment and how these interactions impact entire ecosystems. One must look at the balance of benefit and detriment, but not only in a short term view, but also in a longer-term analysis.

The way that I see it, for something to be “sustainable,” it must be in balance.

In short, “sustainable” refers to an environment made up of ecosystems where human, animal, plant, and microbial life work together along with non-organic, non-living components of the biosphere in ways which do not deplete the terrestrial resources necessary to sustain life.

Human beings, because of our ability to reason, build tools and most importantly, our ability to manipulate living systems on large and small scales, are the greatest determining factor over whether or not an agricultural system, society or foodway is sustainable or not. Humanity is an integral part of the environment–we are not apart from it, though much discussion in the popular media and political realms gives the illusory impression that human beings should be seen as separate and distinct from “the environment.” This fallacious line of thinking is part of the worldview that reduces complexity that is “the environment” to simply a set of resources meant to be exploited for human gain, and is intrinsic to the religious idea that humans are somehow above “Nature” which must be subjegated or tamed.

The most basic argument against that worldview is the simple fact that the resources on this planet are finite, that there are historic and prehistoric examples of societies which have risen to great heights only to fall due to the practice of unsustainable food production techniques, and that while our current level of technological ability has given humanity the ability to feed every human on this planet adequately, there are still those who starve to death while others eat so much that they die of diseases related to the ingestion of too many calories.

The world is out of balance.

Adoption of sustainable methods of agriculture may help humanity take few steps toward creating a healthier balance within the various ecosystems that make up the entire biosphere of this planet.


The basic resources necessary to sustain life on this planet are air, water, soil and sunlight. Extensive damage to any one of these resources can compromise the ability of this planet to continue to teem with living beings.

Air, which is made up gaseous oxygen, carbon dioxide and various other gases, is a basic building block in all organic proceses. Of course, we know that all living animal species, and most microbial species must have oxygen to survive, while carbon dioxide is necessary for plants to carry on photosynthesis, which is the chemical process of converting sunlight into stored energy which can be used by plants and animals as food.

Air pollution can interfere with these basic life-giving processes in many ways. One of the most elemental ways is in the reduction of available oxygen, which depletes oxygen levels in the bloodstream of mammals, for example. Or, if a great deal of carbon particles are present in the air, they can be breathed into lungs and cause irritation and illness, reducing the lung’s ability to dissolve oxygen into the bloodstream, which gives the net result of depleting the avialable oxygen in a given organism. An increase in carbon dioxide paradoxically helps plants grow lushly, yet is tied in part to a depletion in the plants’ ability to store nutrients which are consumed by other life forms.

Water is even more necessary to life than food; a human, depending on how much fat reserves they possess, can live for about sixty days without food, but without water, one can only live for a maximum of about three days.

One of the reasons that the Earth is abundantly covered in a myriad of life forms is because of the large amount of water present in the biosphere. However, most of that water (around 92.7%) is saline, which cannot be consumed by most animal life and is deadly to most terrestrial plants as well. The remaining 7.3% of the Earth’s water is fresh water, and it is upon that small percentage that all terrestrial (land-based) life depends.

Soil is a general term for the mineral and organic-based substance which covers much of the earth’s surface in which plants grow. Soil is made up from ground up rocks, decaying organic matter from plants and animals, and microorganisms which facilitate the physical and chemical breakdown of organic materials. Naturally stratified into layers, with the uppermost layers (called, strangely enough, topsoil), being the richest in organic materials, soil provides the supplementary nutrients and minerals needed by plants to live; these materials are also stored by the plant in leaves, roots and stems and thus can be ingested and utilized by animals as well. Any sort of depletion or loss of fertile topsoil has the potential to jeopardize the ability of humans and animals to live in any given ecosystem.

Topsoil depletion can occur through the physical action of water in the form of runoff carrying particles downstream. The wind, too, can blow fine soil particles which are not covered by vegetation far away; one of the most famous historical occurances of massive topsoil depletion took place in the Great Plains region of the United States during the 1930’s, in a period of severe drought that is commonly called “The Dust Bowl.” In that period, agricultural practices combined with weather conditions to detrimentally affect soil retention, and helped lead to widespread hunger and economic instablity for a great many rural Americans, while separate economic factors including a crash in the stock market created similar circumstances for urban dwellers, leading to a decade-long economic collapse known as “The Great Depression.”

Sunlight is a final basic natural resource for life. It is the major source of heat on Earth; in addition, it is the basic energy component upon which all life is based. Without adequate sunlight, plants cannot photosynthesize and convert sunlight into stored chemical energy or convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. The results of these proceses are the backbone upon which all other life rests. In essence, without sunlight, almost every physical and chemical process that supports life on this planet ceases.

Sustainable Models of Agriculture

Sustainable models of agriculture take into account the effects of any given agricultural practice on the health and balance of the ecosystem in which the farming is taking place, with emphasis placed not only on the short term economic advantages which may occur as a result of the practice, but also on the long-term economic, social, and environmental advantages. In taking this sort of holistic view of agriculture and putting methods of plant production and livestock managment into the context of the interconnected nature of the biosphere, sustainable agriculture is based in large part upon scientific observation of the effects of human activity upon natural resources and the environment. Although many of its techniques and precepts are based on traditionally practiced methods of agriculture, the ideals of sustainablity are not simply a nostalgia-driven harkening back to a mythic “Golden Age” when farmers worked their fields in harmony with Nature, which is often personified and anthropomorphized in the form of an Earth Goddess.

It is, however, a clear indictment of the opposing model of agriculture, which is based upon centralized economic control of natural resources such as water, the use of large amounts of unrenewable petroleum in the form of fuel to run mechanical planting, tilling and harvesting equipment and in the form of pesticides and fertilizers which are often derived from petrochemical sources, and the consolidation of farmland far from the urban centers which rely upon food produced in ever-more-distant areas. This corporate controlled, mechanical model of agriculture relies upon government subsidies of fresh water and petroleum in order to continue working; if either of those subsidies should cease to function, the abundance of cheap foodstuffs produced in this way will either cease to exist altogether, or, more likely, rise precipitously in price.

With crude oil prices recently soaring to the price of $64.00 per barrel, and the looming spectre of peak oil production imminent (or already reached), it is likely that the currently dominant, petroleum-based model of agriculture will cease to be economically viable, and instead of realizing its promise of a well-fed world, result in widespread food shortages and famine.

In addition to the decline of the economic feasiblility of petroleum-based agriculture, various troubling ecological consequences of modern factory farming models have arisen. The decline of underwater aquafers, contamination of groundwater with pesticide and fertilizer residues, and waste runoff from livestock feedlots, the increased production of greenhouse gases in the form of methane from increased numbers of meat animals, the rise of incidents of “dead zones” of de-oxygenated water in oceans attributed to agricultural runoff–all of these negatively impact the quality of the natural resources which sustain the life of every human being on this planet.

In imagining and utilizing alternative methods of plant and production and livestock management which take into account local differences in microclimates on available plots of land, and advocating for more localized food production and the growing of food closer to and within urban centers, sustainable models of agriculture may present some solutions to the problems created by petroleum-based factory farming. However, switching over from unsustainable agricultural practices to sustainable ones is a process which takes time, money, and consumer support.

Current research shows more Americans than ever before are interested in eating organically produced food. According to the Organic Trade Association, the U.S. organic foods industry grew 20 percent in 2003 and accounted for nearly $10.4 billion in consumer sales. The OTA also reports in their 2004 manufacturer survey that organic foods sales have grown between 17% to 21% each year since 1997. According to the USDA, the number of farmers markets in the United States has dramatically increased by 111% from 1994 to 2004. According to the 2004 National Farmers Market Directory, there are over 3,700 farmers markets operating in the United States.

These statistics clearly show an increased interest among American consumers in the development of alternative food sources that go beyond the factory farm/corporate grocery store model. Another sign that interest in sustainable agricultural models is increasing is the number of professional associations, consumer groups, and educational institutes which have formed in order to provide support, education and assistance to farmers and consumers who have a vested interest in more sustainable models of food production. A Google search on “sustainable agriculture” produces 1,260,000 links to websites pertaining to the issue, including links to these very active educational organizations.

As small farmers, many of whom are not eligible for the government subsidies that support giants like ConAgra, discover that they can make more profit by marketing directly to the home cooks and chefs, more and more will turn to producing food by sustainable methods. Studies have shown that even though sustainable methods are more labor intensive and require more extensive knowledge and understanding of the local environment than the equipment-heavy petrochemical model of agriculture, small farmers who practice these principles have managed to not only survive, but thrive and prosper.

In short, sustainable agriculture appears to be here to stay, if for no other reason than the simple fact that petrochemical based farming is simply not going to be able to survive the declining oil supply. This gives an unexpected advantage to small family farmers who perhaps are more able to switch to sustainable methods, and who can more easily diversify thier operations in order to meet consumer demands. Consumers also stand to benefit, though perhaps not necessarily in the short term; as oil prices rise and subsidies dwindle, factory farmed foods will no longer have the artificially low pricetag that Americans have come to expect. In response to consumer demand for less expensive organically produced foods, more farmers will step up to fill the demand, eventually leading to lowered consumer costs.

For more information about sustainable agriculture, here is a list of Web sources:

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center

In future posts, I will write more about specific sustainable agricultural practices, and muse further on the meaning of the word, “sustainable.”

Right now, however, I have to run and make dinner!


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  1. What a great post. I admit, I was more than oblivious to what sustainable agriculture means. It was simply a term thrown around that made something about farms more important. All these years of science lessons, and not once had agriculture been mentioned in more detail than: “crop rotation is important in keeping soil fertile.” Not once was the importance of where our food comes from stressed.

    Thanks for going beyond the scope of the dinner table and explaining what needs to be done to make the bounty of the land guilt-free.

    Comment by allen wong — August 9, 2005 #

  2. Your posting added 50,000 more Google Results: 1 – 10 of about 1,310,000 for “sustainable agriculture”.

    Nice post. I wanted to email this minor comment rather than putting it on the internet foreve, but Am I Blind – Where the heck is your email address on your blog?!?

    Comment by Jack — August 9, 2005 #

  3. Thank you, Allen–you make me feel like the time I spent struggling over what to write was well worth it!

    It isn’t surprising to me that these topics are not covered in science classes in school–they are seldom taught in biology classes in college. I learned a lot of this at the feet of my Grandpa, though he didn’t use as many big words to describe the processes as I did. He just passed down to me what worked in the business of growing healthy plants and animals.

    “Learn these things,” he said to me, “and you and yours will never go hungry. If all else fails, you can farm.”

    The science of it all–I picked that up here and there–some of it is from zoology and botany classes in college, some from reading about agriculture, the history of agriculture, the techniques of organic, biointensive, biodynamic and conventional farming. Zak says that I am the only woman he knows of who can sit down and read an entire book about dirt and be happy.

    At least I amuse him.

    Hey, Jack–thanks for pointing out a serious omission in my blog. Well, big duh! I will add an email address where it can be found tomorrow–I promise.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 10, 2005 #

  4. Hi, I guess it depends on where you want your fertliser from, a bag or a cow. Fundamentally, you’re putting nitrogen back into the soil. Of course if you rely on farm animals to provide the fertiliser, you may have other problems, like phosphorus getting into ground water. I’m not sure that there’d be enough food in the world if we went back to pre-fertiliser days. In a contninet as tightly packed as Europe, then fertilisers are very improtant to providing affordable food.

    Now, when it comes to pesticides there may be smarter ways of keeping down the pests than spraying your crops.

    I’m currently blogging the European Chemical Industry, by the way at http://www.bizbuzzmedia.com/chemicals

    Comment by An Insider — August 24, 2005 #

  5. I am not necessarily against the use of artificially-derived fertilizer–that is part of my point in saying that sustainability is not simply about anti-chemical or pro-organic agricultural methods.

    However, I do believe that currently, we grow -too much- food, and have caused harm in that way as well. The artificially large yields of corn that are produced in the US have led to feedlot/factory farmed/cornfed beef, which has any number of unwelcome health issues revolving around it. Exclusively grain-feeding cattle arose as a means of getting rid of excess corn brought about by higher than normal corn yields. (The excessive use of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods came about for the same reason–to use up excessive corn.)

    The US also dumps cheap grain into the world market and makes it nearly impossible for smaller Third World countries to compete, thus damaging their own economies.

    Sometimes too much grain is too much.

    Europe may be different; I will admit I don’t know much about the state of European farming practices and population studies. But, in my experience in the US, factory farmed foods are not as flavorful, nutritious or healthy for the environment as those which are raised locally and sustainably.

    (One thing that I will add about European farming techniques is that quite a few of the urban farming techniques that are in use in Cuba were developed in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by market farmers near Paris–so I am not completely ignorant of the issue–just perhaps not as knowlegeable as you.)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 24, 2005 #

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