Sustainability - An Overview
sustainable agriculture
Consumers wonder how food is grown
Sustainability - An Overview


According to Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, "Sustainability is about maintaining something indefinitely into the future. Consequently, to be sustainable we have to anticipate and successfully adapt to the changes ahead. Sustainability is a process, not a prescription. This process always requires social, ecological and economic dimensions. There is therefore, no simple definition. It is a journey we embark on together and not a formula we agree to."

Agriculture is faced with significant challenges on the global level; in short, to produce more with less impact. That challenge is stated well in “The 2050 Criteria”, from the World Wildlife Fund1 – “Over the next 40 years, land, energy, water, and weather constraints will place unprecedented pressure on mankind’s ability to access its most basic goods – food, fuel, and fiber. Humanity must now produce more food in the next four decades than we have in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined. And we must do so sustainably.” Those systems currently support 7 billion humans, or more correctly, adequately support about 6 billion with another 800 million or so suffering from food insecurity, malnutrition or hunger.2 The FAO projects that our population will grow to more than 9 billion by 2050, requiring a 70% increase in food production.3

To be sure, there has been considerable progress made in the science and practice of agriculture in the U.S.: producing more food and fiber on about the same acreage as a century ago with less labor, energy and water per unit of output and considerably less soil erosion. However, the projected population growth will intensify the challenges in terms of declining quality of water, soil and air; loss of genetic diversity, rising input costs, loss of farmlands.4

At a Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) International Scientific Symposium on "Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets: United against Hunger" held in November 2010, the following definition of "sustainable diets" was developed:

Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.

Sustainability efforts do not fall on one group of stakeholders but are a joint responsibility of many parties: consumers, health professionals, retailers, food industry (including producers and manufacturers) and the government. Issues these stakeholders must address are:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions (carbon footprint)
  • Water supply and usage
  • Reduction in biodiversity
  • Ability of our food supply to sustain us and promote health
  • Impact of farming on the local economy
  • Good animal welfare

References cited:

1. The 2050 Criteria: Guide to Responsible Investment in Agricultural, Forest and Seafood Commodities, WWF Report, Sept. 2012

2. US Census Bureau 2012 referenced in Global Food Security Science White Paper, USDA, Research, Education and Economics, Office of the Chief Scientist, July 24, 2012

3. FAO (2009) FAO’s Director-General on How to Feed the World in 2050. Population and Development Review 35 837-839

4. National Research Council report “Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century”, 2010.