farming systems are more sustainable than other farming systems. Indeed, all farming system types have opportunities to improve in sustainability, and all farming system types could be unsustainable depending on their management and on environmental, social, and economic changes over time.


Defining Sustainability Goals

In its broadest sense, sustainability has been described as the ability to provide for core societal needs in a manner that can be readily continued into the indefinite future without unwanted negative effects. Most definitions of sustainability are framed in terms of three broad social goals: environmental, economic, and social health or well-being.1 For example, a sustainable farming system might be one that provides food, feed, fiber, biofuel, and other commodities for society, as well as allows for reasonable economic returns to producers and laborers, cruelty-free practices for farm animals, and safe, healthy, and affordable food for consumers, while at the same time maintains or enhances the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends (USDA-NAL, 2007).

The legal definition of sustainable farming systems as defined in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act (1990 Farm Bill and revised in 2007) is a useful starting point for identifying sustainability goals for the purposes of this report:

an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term: satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

This legal definition mingles a description of societal sustainability goals with strategies that can be used to achieve those goals (for example, “an integrated system which will use, where appropriate natural biological cycles and controls”; or “make the most efficient use of nonrenewable and on-farm resources”). This report makes a clear distinction between societal sustainability goals and the management systems used to pursue these goals. That distinction recognizes that the same goals can potentially be achieved through a range of different management and organizational approaches.

Modifying the Farm Bill definition slightly, the committee isolated four key societal sustainability goals that serve as the organizing principles for the remainder of this report (Figure 1-1):

  • 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, farm workers, and society as a whole.

The sustainability of a farming practice or system could be evaluated on the basis of how well it meets various societal goals or objectives. To be sustainable, a farming system needs


In Europe, the three goals of sustainability are sometimes referred to as the 3Ps: people, prosperity, and planet, or, alternatively, as the “triple bottom line.”

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