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Approaches to

What is Sustainable Farming?

The concept of ‘sustainability’ in farming now encompasses a much wider range of issues than its earlier, more limited and narrow technical definition. In brief, three basic elements can be seen as critical to the ‘sustainability ‘agenda’ in its current sense:

Environment protection has come to  embrace a rainbow of concerns.  First and most basic, obviously, is the need to protect the natural resource base on which agriculture depends: in other words sustainability in its most literal and narrow sense.  While within the EU recent decades have seen a remarkable rise in per hectare productivity that in reality shows few indications of being unsustainable – there are serious concerns in some areas about soil erosion, falling soil organic matter levels, rising salinity and heavy metal contamination.

Second comes the need to reduce air, soil and, above all, water pollution from pesticide residues and from fertiliser and livestock effluent run-offs. Legislation to safeguard both ground and surface water is forcing major changes in farming practices across Europe, most dramatically in zones where fertiliser use and/or concentrations of livestock are heaviest.

Related to this in some regions, particularly in southern Europe, is the problem of water availability and the need for irrigation practices that minimise waste.

All EU member states have now put in place measures to strengthen biodiversity conservation and the effectiveness of different approaches in improving the overall sustainability of the farm environment will be closely monitored. It is increasingly being realised that there are two distinct dimensions here – the direct impact on the fauna and flora of the actual farmed area and also the extent to which the productivity of the farmed area allows land to be returned to the wild.

Possibly most controversial of all is the potential environmental impact of biotechnology - not only in breeding plants with genetic resistance to diseases, pests and broad-spectrum herbicides, but also in developing traits that deliver clear benefits for food/feed processing, consumer, industrial and pharmaceutical applications. These developments are likely to be seriously delayed by anti-GM campaigns but not blocked permanently (recent research shows declining public concern on GM foods, for example, in several EU countries).

Energy conservation and reduced emission of greenhouse gases is another environmental dimension of sustainable agriculture. Practices such as minimal tillage can play a part in this.  Increased subsidies for energy crops for electricity generation and biofuels are also advocated on sustainability grounds.

Other environment protection demands are reflected in the legislation on waste management, in particular on packing both of inputs (fertilisers, pesticides) and of farm products.


Social responsibility issues impinge on sustainable agriculture more and more.  Most basic is farm worker health and safety - especially ensuring the safe use of crop protection products.

With public health food safety comes first including pressure for minimal pesticide (and animal health product) residues, as well as freedom from salmonella and other microbial contamination. The question now is how far such consumer protection will and should go – exemplified by the arguments over GM ‘contamination’ where public perceptions are so out of line with the scientific evidence and expert opinion, creating difficult dilemmas both for governments and the food industry.

Other social responsibility issues that both policy makers and firms in the food chain are under pressure to take into account include employment conditions for the workers concerned and the impact of changes in farming practices and structure on rural society. Many food processors and retailers have begun to respond to the ideas behind mantras such as ‘local production for local needs’ and ‘fair trade’ even where their rationale does not always stand scrutiny.  The farmers’ market movement – more important in some EU countries than others – is another aspect of this.


There is also the wider issue of the recreational use of the countryside. In many regions the revenues generated from rural tourism and associated activities now exceed those from food and farming. In consequence, countryside access and landscape conservation are now an important element in rural strategy in most EU countries. So, too, though outside the scope of this study, is the relationship between farming, forestry and other competing land uses.

Related to this is the widespread perception across Europe of a growing gap between farmers and the general public, and in particular the latter’s poor understanding of agriculture and food production.


Economic viability is the third key feature of the sustainability agenda. A central element in the reform of the CAP is the effort to ‘decouple’ commodity payments from farm income support.. This is happening alongside extensive diversification, as a survival strategy exploiting both technical and market opportunities. One important example in this context is the development of rural (or agri) tourism. This and other measures will delay but not prevent extensive changes in the structure of farming across Europe as less viable farm enterprises go out of business. So the EC now treats rural development both on and off the farm as the ‘second leg’ of the CAP, with a steadily increasing budget.

It needs to be recognised more openly that many aspects of sustainability have added significant costs right down the food chain. Restrictions on crop production methods, traceability, inspection, certification and separate storage and distribution – these all cost money and there is an argument for realistic cost-benefit analysis as part of both commercial and official policy-making in deciding which measures deserve priority. Where these extra costs raise retail food prices the impact on poorer consumers is highly regressive and may reduce their purchases of ‘healthy’ foods such as fruit and vegetables.

The reality is that the sustainability agenda now has a strongly political as well as a technical dimension in all European countries.  For policy makers the challenge is to reconcile the need for economic viability of farming and rural areas with the imperatives of environment protection and social responsibility.

This means attending to the demands and views of the various stakeholder groups – input suppliers, farmers, food processors and traders, and consumers in the food chain as well as the consumer and environmental NGOs and other political interests. All these have their own complex and often conflicting agendas.

The ideas and practices of sustainable agriculture in its different guises are emerging  as the key policy framework, allowing a consensus to evolve on the policies and instruments that offer the most effective means of achieving agreed objectives and targets.

Approaches to Sustainability