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Sustainability and the three pillars of sustainable agriculture

Sustainability is a concept that emerged towards the end of the 20th century due to a growing awareness of the environmental impact of human activity, and the recognition that natural resources are being depleted [1].

Some of the definitions of sustainability are:

  • Economic development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs [2].
  • The use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them [3].
  • The possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever [4].

The principle behind sustainable agriculture is that our food production practices should maximise desirable outcomes (which could include, for example, high yields, quality products, good standards of animal welfare) without over consumption of resources (financial, environmental and human) and without creating ‘negative externalities’. For example, the latter might include pollution, soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions.

As you will discover as you progress through this course, practices that make agriculture more sustainable can be grouped together into three ‘pillars’ [5]:

  1. Social (People): Ensuring food security (enough food for all) by following practices that guarantee human access to food and improvement of their welfare, and do not exploit workers.
  2. Environmental (Planet): Efficient use of resources and integrated approaches that minimise waste and negative impacts on both the natural and physical environment.
  3. Economic (Profit): Protecting the financial viability of farms and supporting the longevity of their business, including the ability to re-invest.

These three pillars are often interconnected in practice. For example, pests and diseases can be present in a crop without causing economic damage. In this case, it would be a waste of resources to intervene. Farmers use the term ‘economic threshold level’ which defines the stage at which the threat would significantly affect the yield and action is necessary. It varies according to crop and pest or disease combination. Knowledge of these thresholds and the dynamics of pests and natural enemies helps to avoid unnecessary interventions and saves both environmental and economic resources.

Infographic: Sustainability. The use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them.
- The global population is increasing. It reached billion in 2017.
- By 2050 the global population will be billion. That’s an increase of billion in just 33 years.
- This will create challenges for global food security.
- So how can we produce a secure supply of safe and nutritious food to feed this growing population in a way that balances the three pillars of a sustainable system?
Social: i.e. human well being, equity and social responsibility.
Economic: i.e. profits and financial performance.
Environmental: i.e. efficient use of natural resources with low environmental impact.
• What is sustainable food production?
• How can we buy sustainably?

The infographic was created by Aanand Tank, an undergraduate student from the University of Reading’s Typography and Graphic Communication department.

As this infographic shows, population growth is another factor affecting sustainability but this course focuses on the need for farmers to produce enough food for everyone and we do not discuss the reasons for this growth or the ethical issues surrounding it.

References can be found under the ‘Downloads’ heading at the bottom of this Step.

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This article is from the free online course:

Explore How Farmers Produce Food Sustainably

EIT Food