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Medicine LibreTexts

14.1: Chapter Introduction

Big Ideas

  • Sustainability promotes nutrition today and protects natural resources for tomorrow.

As discussed in previous chapters, sustainability is a word that’s often talked about in the realm of food and nutrition. The term relates to the goal of achieving a world that meets the needs of its present inhabitants while preserving resources for future generations. As awareness about sustainability has increased among the media and the public, both agricultural producers and consumers have made more of an effort to consider how the choices they make today will impact the planet tomorrow.


Raising free-range chickens that feed out in the open is one example of a sustainable agricultural practice. Free Range Hens The eggs these hens produce will be pretty tasty. Image used with permission from Adam Ward (via Wikipedia).

However, defining sustainability can be difficult because the term means different things to different groups. For most, sustainable agriculture can best be described as an umbrella term that encompasses food production and consumption practices that do not harm the environment, that do support agricultural communities, and that are healthy for the consumer.Sustainable Table. “Introduction to Sustainability.” Accessed October 10, 2011. From factory farms to smaller-scale ranches and granges, sustainable farming practices are being implemented more and more as the long-term viability of the current production system has been called into question.

Yet, the concept of sustainability is not new to agricultural science, practice, or even policy. It has evolved throughout modern history as a way to achieve self-reliance. It is also a vehicle for maintaining rural communities and supporting the concept of conservation and protection of the land.Ecological Agriculture Projects. “A History of Sustainable Agriculture.” © 1990 Rod MacRae. In 1990, the US federal government defined sustainable agriculture in a piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill. The practice was described as an integrated system of plant and animal production that satisfies human needs for food, along with fiber for fabric and other uses. The Farm Bill further defines sustainable agriculture as a practice that enhances environmental quality and also the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends. Sustainable agriculture also makes the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources, sustains the economic viability of farm operations, and supports the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.Gold, M.V. “Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms.” US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library. Special Reference Briefs Series no. SRB 99-02 (September 1999, August 2007).

In other words, the practice of sustainable agriculture strives to eschew conventional farming methods, including the cultivation of single crops and row crops continuously over many seasons, the dependency on agribusiness, and the rearing of livestock in concentrated, confined systems.Gold, M.V. “Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms.” US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library. Special Reference Briefs Series no. SRB 99-02 (September 1999, August 2007). Instead, sustainability includes a focus on biodiversity among both crops and livestock; conservation and preservation to replenish the soil, air, and water; animal welfare; and fair treatment and wages for farm workers.Sustainable Table. “What Is Sustainable Agriculture?” Accessed October 10, 2011. Sustainable agriculture also encourages the health of consumers by rejecting extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers and promoting the consumption of organic, locally produced food. Although many farmers and food companies work to implement these practices, some use the idea of sustainability to attract consumers without completely committing to the concept. “Greenwashing” is a derisive term (similar to “whitewashing”) for a corporation or industry falsely utilizing a proenvironmental image or message to expand its market base.

Sustainability depends not only on agricultural producers, but also on consumers. The average person can do a number of things to consume a more sustainable diet, from eating less meat to purchasing fruits and vegetables grown on nearby farms. For example, produce sold in the Midwest typically travels an average of more than fifteen hundred miles from farm to supermarket. However, increasing the consumption of more locally-grown produce by 10 percent would save thousands of gallons in fossil fuel each year.Heller, M. C., G. A. Keoleian. “US Food System Factsheet.” Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. CSS Factsheets, no. CSS01-06 (2001).

You Decide

How will you adapt your lifestyle and dietary choices to help promote sustainable agricultural practices?

Some consumers are choosing to make smarter nutritional choices, eat healthier foods, and enjoy fresh, locally grown products. They read the labels on products in their local stores, make more home-cooked meals using whole-food ingredients, and pay attention to the decisions that legislators and other officials make regarding food production and consumption. Will you be one of them? How you can adjust your dietary selections to benefit not only your body and mind but also to help sustain the planet for future generations?

Video 14.1.1: Green Careers: Sustainable Agriculture. This video focuses on the role of a farm manager on a small farm that follows sustainable agricultural practices (click to see video).