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The Three Pillars of Sustainability

Learn more about the three pillars of sustainability and their features.

In this step, we’ll go into more depth about the different aspects of sustainability and how these relate to arable farming and the sustainable intensification of food production.

It’s helpful to consider three different aspects of sustainability – often called the ‘Three Pillars of Sustainability’.

  • Economic: profits and financial performance – protecting financial viability, supporting the farm business, re-investing.
  • Environmental: efficient use of natural resources with low environmental impact – minimising waste and negative impacts on the physical and natural environments.
  • Social: human well-being, equity and social responsibility – for example through enabling food security and not exploiting workers.

All three pillars need to be considered and held in (dynamic) balance or the system is unsustainable [1].

You’ll discover more about how these three pillars relate to sustainable arable farming over the course, but here is a summary:

Economic Sustainability

In relation to arable farming this could include:

  • Viability of farming (especially given the increasing use of marginal land): production of food that can be afforded by consumers that returns a profit to farmers and enables re-investment in the business.
  • Sustainability of equipment and material costs associated with agricultural production.
  • Are the technical systems sustainable? For example, are systems ‘future proof’, do they link together, so you don’t have to buy in to a single system.
  • The volatility of prices and costs for inputs (eg fertilisers) and crops. Pressures on production costs due to price volatility and increasing costs.
  • Varying demands for products and demand for quality, considering the needs and wants of consumers.

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability includes both the natural and the physical environment. We can consider broad areas of environmental sustainability in agriculture such as:

  • Water use and extraction
  • Impact of farming on the soil
  • Use and impact of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers
  • The impact of farming on wildlife
  • The impact on ecosystem services and local habitats.

The environment also includes the physical landscape. Farming can be seen to have a ‘caretaker’ role, maintaining the look and structure of the countryside [3]. The role is also constantly changing as we try to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

There are many different broad and site-specific measures that can support environmental sustainability for example:

  • Using crop rotation, forage crops and fallow which can improve soil fertility and suppress weeds [4].
  • Integrated pest management and biological control of pests in order to reduce pesticide use [5].
  • Looking at the benefits of hedgerows and other non-cropped habitats in supporting wildlife diversity and pollinators [6].
  • Considering how an increase in pesticide use can have a negative impact on pollinator populations; reducing biodiversity and potentially reducing cropping [7].

Environmental sustainability can also relate closely to economic sustainability. For example, the loss of soil organic matter and soil microbiome can lead to decreasing crop production and increasing the need for fertiliser and associated costs [7].

Social Sustainability

Agriculture has a key role to play in social sustainability, by providing employment, food, enhancement of the natural environment and improving the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole. Across the EU in 2016 around 9.7 million people worked in agriculture, 4.2% of total employment [8].

  • Food production and food security are areas of concern globally. With an increasing global population, estimated to exceed 9 billion by 2050 [9], increasing resistance to the conversion of non-agricultural land and the plateauing of food production increases, agricultural intensification in a sustainable way may be one way to feed the world. Tied into this is the need to produce nutritious affordable food which will also profit farmers, enabling economic sustainability.
  • The maintenance of the physical and natural environment and the countryside is also an aspect of social sustainability – there is public expectation that farmers have a role in the maintenance of the landscape and supporting environmental initiatives [3]. Effective communication with the public through, for example, highlighting decreasing pesticide use and how this impacts crop yields and wildlife is also an important aspect [7].
  • The well-being of farmers and associated workers is also important. The adoption of new agricultural technologies could lead to the loss of agricultural jobs and feelings of disassociation from the land [10] but may also bring new job roles and increased efficiency in working practices.

Balancing the Pillars

The three pillars need to be in (dynamic) balance and trade-offs may need to be made between them to ensure the system is sustainable [11]. You’ll have a chance to consider the trade-offs required to balance them.

Do you think that arable farming is currently sustainable in Europe?


© EIT Food
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Innovation in Arable Farming: Technologies for Sustainable Farming Systems

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