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A mix-up of definitions is often behind the divide in agriculture. Lundberg Family Farms is organic and considered a small farm, when it is a large farm of more than 5,000 acres.

While the definition of “sustainable agriculture” has evolved, the same themes are addressed. The 1989 National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council report “Alternative Agriculture” observed that “The hallmark of alternative farming is not the conventional practices it rejects, but the innovative practices it includes.”

Key Points

• Definitions often lead to the divide in agriculture.

• “Sustainable” doesn’t reject usual practices; it hugs novelty.

• One idea is to pay farmers to maximize essential nutrients per acre.

1989 definitions

The report defined “alternative agriculture” as “… any system of food and fiber production that systematically pursues:

• more thorough incorporation of natural processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation and pest-predator relationships into the agricultural production process

• reduction in the use of off-farm inputs with the greatest potential to harm the environment or health of farmers and consumers

• greater productive use of the biological and genetic potential of plant and animal species

• improvement of the match between cropping patterns and the productive potential and physical limitations of agricultural lands to ensure long-term sustainability of current production levels

“Profitable and efficient production is the goal, with emphasis on improved farm management and conservation of soil, water, energy, and biological resources. ... Alternative agriculture is not a single system …”

The definition of “sustainable agriculture” in the 2010 NAS/NRC report differs markedly even though the 1989 report was intended to mean essentially “sustainable agriculture.”

2010 differences

The 2010 report does not offer a definition of “sustainable agriculture,” and instead identifies four goals:

• Satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs, and contribute to biofuel needs.

• Enhance environmental quality and the resource base.

• Sustain the economic viability of agriculture.

• Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farmworkers, and society as a whole. “Sustainability is best evaluated not as a particular end state, but rather as a process that moves farming systems along a trajectory toward greater sustainability on each of the four goals.”

Changes in the food system

Over the 20 years between these two reports, science and technology have produced far deeper, and in some cases, more worrisome, insights into the food system. They have also solved many problems, made it possible for organic farming to expand, and led to the development and commercialization of a much wider array of farm inputs, including many new chemicals, animal drugs, plant and animal genetics, machines and practices; and tillage, planting, irrigation, and harvest systems.

The introduction of genetically engineered, or GE, crops in 1996, and their adoption and consequences, have deepened divisions among the public, farmers and policymakers. The prospect that cloned and GE animals and fish will enter the food supply raises ethical, animal welfare and food safety concerns.

Weed issues

Chuck Benbrook points out that GE-resistant weeds are a serious problem, especially in cotton-producing areas of the South, where the amount of annual rainfall and long growing season make weed control more challenging.

“Many farmers there have resorted to hiring work crews to go out with hoes to try to deal with Roundup-resistant weeds,” he says. “A good portion of the payment per acre of crops should be made on the basis of crop quality, instead of just crop volume, if we are to encourage sustainable farming.

“As a goal, at least 80% of the money invested in preventing pest damage or animal diseases should be spent on the prevention of problems, and less than 20% on treatments.”



A WINNER: Chuck Benbrook (above) Spoke in Bloomberg Television’s “Intelligence Squared” debate about organic food. Before debate on the motion “Organic food is marketing hype,” the vote was 21% for the motion, 45% against the motion, and 34% undecided. After the debate, 21% voted for the motion, 69% against the motion, and 10% undecided.



SIZE: Too many big ag operations look at farms as an outdoor factory — a place to store animals or push out a product, while all the inputs are brought in: feed, chemical fertilizer, pesticides, etc. In sustainable agriculture, a farm is a kind of ecosystem, made up of elements like soil, plants, insects and animals.


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GRAPE TREND: Grapes are among the easiest fruit crops to grow organically, especially in the West — where California pushes sustainable practices and a statewide trend.


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BUG VAC: The bug vacuum is an example of a technology that seemed promising in the 1980s, when “Alternative Agriculture” was written, but has gone by the wayside. Technology — whether mechanical, chemical or genetic — that is indiscriminate in its impacts and reduces biodiversity is not likely to be worth the consequences. The bug vac sucked up beneficial insects needed to control a host of other insects.


This article published in the October, 2010 edition of CALIFORNIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.