What is sustainable agriculture?

“Sustainable agriculture” is a term favoured by politicians and industry experts alike. But what does it actually mean and how are UK producers supposed to become more sustainable? Caroline Stocks investigates.

Attend any farming conference or read a government document on agriculture and the environment and the phrase “sustainable agriculture” will crop up time and time again.

In the face of soaring global populations and a reported need to increase food production by 70%, sustainable agriculture is hailed as the saviour to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

In his report on the future of food and farming, the government’s chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, said it would help reduce food poverty, ensure global food security and help the world adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

But despite the grand claims of what it can achieve, there seems to be a degree of confusion over just what sustainable agriculture is and how producers are expected to achieve it on their farms.

“In the short term, it isn’t possible to define it,” said Professor Tim Benton, the government’s champion for global food security.

“The rule of thumb is that if you have a have a farming practice which maintains yields while increasing environmental goods and benefits, then this is sustainable.

“The broad consensus is sustainability is associated with increased resource use efficiency, like improving soil quality, reducing nitrogen run-off, precision agriculture and anything that reduces water use, especially for irrigation. Those are a win-win for farmers and for the environment.”


Strategies like the government’s Campaign for the Farmed Environment and plans to introduce a form of set-aside as part of reforms for the Common Agricultural Policy could also go some way to help, he said. But it is not simply a matter of applying one sustainability strategy across an entire country’s farming systems.

“The overall question comes down to defining the boundaries of the system you are looking at and the best thing to do varies according to place,” Professor Benton said.

“If you are looking at global terms, it might be better for farms in the west of Europe to be relatively unsustainable by producing high yields in order to save land in other parts of the world where to get yields would have high environmental costs.

“In simple terms, how much do you value a sky lark in the European farmed environment over a piece of rain forest from a global perspective? We can do a lot to improve sky larks but that reduces out ability to do good elsewhere.”

Instead, he said farm sustainability needs to be considered on more local levels, even from one farm to another. It is an argument he has put across in a recent report to Paulo de Castro, chairman of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, as discussions continue around how reform of the CAP can ensure more environmental benefit.

“Different parts of Europe will see different cost to benefit ratios in those plans [to demand 7% of farmland is put into Ecological Focus Areas],” Professor Benton said.

“On a conceptual level, you want to encourage wildlife, but it’s more sensible to drive production in East Anglia and let farmers in the Lake District focus on the environment.

“It makes no sense to get everyone to do the whole thing – we need to do it at multiple levels and it’s a difficult and costly thing to achieve. But those administrative costs can be outweighed in environmental benefits if we do it properly.”


As well as over-simplifying sustainability through strategies such as compulsory set-aside, Professor Benton said there is also a need to avoid thinking about certain production systems as being “ideal” in the quest for sustainable agriculture.

“If organic farming increases environmental goods and services but reduces yield, it’s not true that the system is more sustainable, as someone else has to make up the yield.

“Local food is similarly problematic. To get a range of produce, you need a range of different foods which are not necessarily the best thing to produce in a certain area.

“If England was self sustainable in food we would need to grow more vegetables and have a very different farming system. It might be good for the environment, but the total sum of food could decrease and in a food-hungry world that’s not good.”

NFU president Peter Kendall said while producers can learn from organic and local food systems, neither are the sole solution for sustainable agriculture.

He said no agricultural system can be completely sustainable and instead farmers and policy makers need to focus on how to minimise impact rather than striving for the impossible.

“Being more sustainable will involve a much more targeted use of inputs,” he added.

“That might be controlled traffic farming, direct drilling, more targeted application of pesticides and fertiliser and targeted irrigation.

“It’s a massive intensification of management. We will use technology to use bespoke management in a way we never used it before and while will still have a footprint, it will be a long way from where we were.”

New way

But the Soil Association argued it is not using existing inputs differently which will allow agriculture to become more sustainable. Instead a whole new way of producing food is needed.

“Over the next 20 years, we will also have to wean ourselves off over half a century’s dependence on oil and gas to provide the soil fertility we need to grow our food,” said Emma Hockridge, the association’s head of policy.

“We will instead have to use renewable energy, the power of the sun, to supply soil nutrients through nitrogen fixing crops like red clover.

“Sixty years ago the organic movement started on this course. We do not have a perfect system, but organic farming techniques already make a significant contribution towards the climate-friendly food production that we will all have to adopt.”

Environmental expert and former RSPB conservation director Mark Avery agreed that a more organic route could improve agricultural sustainability from a wildlife perspective and said striving for ever-higher yields is not the answer for farming in a sustainable way.

“Sustainability isn’t about being a rubbish farmer,” he said. “Farmers should get out more to see what techniques are available.

“There’s too much of an assumption that proper farming is about producing as much as we can and getting your yields up. It’s all a bit macho. Farmers should be encouraged to let their feminine side come to the fore.”

But according to the Friends of the Earth, it should not be just down to farmers to make changes to their practices to make food production more sustainable

“Lots needs to happen beyond the farm gate,” said the organisation’s farm campaigner, Vicki Hird.

“How can farmers put measures which could help their sustainability into practice if they are being squeezed, or if the markets are very volatile? It makes it difficult to act.

“The government needs to give the right advice and take steps to help farmers through things like the implementation of a retailer ombudsman.

“Farmers don’t need to be dictated to, we need to create the climate for them to be able to change.”

What is sustainable farming to you?

Farmers on Twitter give their thoughts on what they think a sustainable farm looks like:

@oldsmith Lots of native wildlife, wildflowers, water recycling, solar/AD for energy, plus excellent soil condition.

@AgHagg Full crop rotation including legumes, grass-fed sheep and cattle, wildlife-promoting crops, profitable bottom line and minimal chemicals. No GM.

@PhilatRedRock Profitable, innovative, tidy, efficient with fuel and water, connected with local people, non-dependent on SFP.

@HywelV2 Minimum inputs; energy, chemicals, water. By-products of one aspect used as inputs in another. Soil structure improvement.

@Burgee2 Farming sustainably means the economics, inputs and people must be able to continue until the end of time.

@farmerkit Sustainable should be NO negative impact on the environment. On a farm scale, this is achievable. It means maximising benefits in margins and non cropped areas.

@kevcow Grass, grass and grass in western Britain – especially for livestock