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Journal of Environmental Management (1998) 52, Assessing the sustainability of agriculture at the planning stage This paper reviews the current state of knowledge in defining sustainable agriculture
Journal of Environmental Management (1998) 52, Assessing the sustainability of agriculture at the planning stage This paper reviews the current state of knowledge in defining sustainable agriculture within the broader sphere of sustainable development. We conclude that agricultural sustainability encompasses biophysical, economic and social factors operating at the field, farm, watershed, regional and national scales. The immediate challenge is to determine what are sustainable agricultural uses before they are implemented at the planning stage. The final section outlines a framework within which current land evaluation, environmental impact and strategic environmental assessment approaches to land use planning may be extended, and argues that these approaches must include, from the beginning, sustainability criteria. The framework for integrated sustainability assessment encompasses a mosaic of factors and hierarchy of scales important to agricultural sustainability. The keys to this framework are characterizing sustainability indicator groups and identifying threats to sustainable practice. In this way, the framework can be seen as a guide for unsustainability assessment using indicators Academic Press Limited Keywords: sustainable agriculture, land use planning, land evaluation, sustainable development. Introduction But what is sustainable agriculture? This paper addresses this question to meet the requirements of development planners who The World Commission on Environment and need to understand, ex ante, the sus- Development (the Brundtland Commission) tainability of alternative land uses. offered the most widely used definition of Many have investigated the requirements sustainable development: of sustainable agriculture and most agree Humanity has the ability to make deardship, that food sufficiency, environmental stewvelopment sustainable to ensure that it socio-economic viability and equity meets the needs of the present generation are important ingredients. But philosophical without compromising the ability of fu- definitions are relatively easy to state. Opture generations to meet their own needs. erational definitions and methodologies to The concept of sustainable development does imply limits not absolute limits but allow them to be applied in agricultural limitations imposed by the present state policy making and planning are much more of technology and social organisation on difficult to determine. environmental resources and by the abil- The most advanced practical approaches to ity of the biosphere to absorb the effects sustainable agriculture focus on the inverse of human activities (WCED, 1990, p9). problem what is unsustainable? This is a Despite the variety of definitions, or perhaps more manageable proposition because the because of it, sustainable development evidence for unsustainability, even if diag- The Department of is now the dominant paradigm guiding de- nosed regrettably late, is clearer. The most Geographical Sciences and Planning, The velopment planning. Given the importance common methodologies use sustainability in- University of Queensland, of agriculture as the ultimate provider of dicators. These are valuable for assessing the St Lucia, 4072, food, fibre and shelter for the human popu- sustainability of agricultural systems but are Queensland, Australia. lation, no sector has a greater role in moving not adequate for the assessment of new land Received 24 July, 1996; towards development that is sustainable. use options without a guiding framework. accepted 27 July, /98/ $25.00/0/ev Academic Press Limited 16 As with sustainable development, sus- tainable agriculture is a multi-dimensional concept, which has led to an array of defin- itions. Smit and Smithers (1993) discuss some interpretations of sustainable agri- culture and explain why they differ, concluding that the main cause of confusion is people s perception of what constitutes agriculture and sustainability. The key questions needing answers for agricultural land use planning include what areas can be opened up for agricultural land use and using what land use practices? In proposing a framework for assessing agricultural sustainability at the planning stage, this paper aims to assist planners in answering these questions given the present understanding of sustainability as a multi- dimensional and multiscaled concept. Sustainable development the foundation for sustainable agriculture Sustainable agriculture Defining agriculture The attributes of agriculture range from spe- Of the many interpretations of the concept of cific soil-plant interactions at the field level, sustainable development, two seem to pre- to international trading arrangements at the dominate in the literature. These are the global level (Table 1). wealth approach and the mosaic approach. From a biophysical perspective, agri- The wealth approach states that if de- culture is based on plant growth and how velopment is to be sustainable, it must fully different conditions such as soil fertility, cliappreciate the value of natural and built cap- mate and pests affect it. The focus is on how ital so that the next generation can inherit a various management practices and enstock of assets no less than those we inherited vironmental conditions affect yield. Much ourselves, thereby maintaining intergener- research on agricultural sustainability has ational equity (Pearce et al., 1989). There are addressed the prospects for maintaining or two variations of the wealth approach. improving current levels of biophysical pro- Firstly, weak sustainability, which allows ductivity. man-made and natural capital to be sub- From an economic perspective, agriculture stitutes, and secondly, strong sustainability, is an enterprise at the farm level and an which requires that natural capital assets not important economic sector at the regional decline through time (Pearce et al., 1993). or national level. Economic sustainability is While sustainable development can be ex- considered in terms of the costs of production plained in terms of wealth inheritance, it is and the prospects for continued economic generally accepted that the concept has disviability in the face of changing entinct ecological, economic and social comvironmental, social and economic conditions. ponents (Anon, 1990). This is the mosaic Finally, from a social perspective, agriapproach to sustainable development. The culture is viewed at the macro scale as a mosaic approach breaks sustainable deproducer with a focus on its ability to satisfy velopment into three main components: requirements for food and fibre. Sustainability is associated with the prospects ecological sustainability which requires that development is compatible with the of meeting national and global food and fibre maintenance of ecological processes; needs, quality and security of food supplies, economic sustainability which requires transfer of technology, and efficiency and that development be economically feas- fairness of food distribution systems. ible; and, Different perspectives depend on the spa- social sustainability which requires that tial scale being considered. At the field scale, development be socially acceptable. agriculture is mostly about soil conditions, nutrient levels, water availability and plant The mosaic approach to sustainable decrop and livestock production, management growth. At the farm scale, agriculture means velopment forms the philosophical basis for this discussion on sustainable agriculture. practices and the structure and viability of Assessing the sustainability of agriculture 17 Table 1. Meaning of agriculture by dimension and scale (Smit and Smithers, 1993) Dimension Scale Micro Meso Macro Natural resource base continental water agroecosystems, and land field level soil regional land resources, global fertility, moisture capability climate Crop production regional field yield, production, land global food and management use patterns fibre supplies Economic return farm level regional production costs, economy, value viability, capital of production, trade marketing, outlay distribution policies, politics Rural community farm level tenure, rural economy family size and function, global poverty, involvement, access to food, hunger, equity, communication facilities politics farm operations. At the regional scale, agri- within the constraints of profitability. The culture is a key element in natural resource second view was sustainability as stew- use and land use patterns. At national and ardship, defined in terms of controlling environmental global scales, agriculture involves trade, damage. The third view was equity and food sufficiency. sustainability as community, defined in There have been several attempts to integrate terms of maintaining or reconstructing ecoscales these various interpretations and nomically and socially viable rural systems. of agriculture. Spedding (1979) conceived Yunlong and Smit (1994) also distinguished agricultural systems as a hierarchy three main perceptions of sustainability. The of enterprises, farms, plantations, regional first is the ecological definition of sus- and national agricultures. Conway (1985a) tainability, which focuses on biophysical processes described agriculture as a hierarchy of agroecosystems, and continued productivity of each possessing properties functioning ecosystems. The second is the economic which distinguish one from the other. Some definition of sustainability, which is conceptual models focus on the farm as the mainly concerned with the long-term maintenance basic agricultural unit, which interacts with of the benefits of farming to agribasic the physical, economic and social en- cultural producers. The third is the social vironments from local to global scales definition, which addresses the continued sat- (Bryant and Johnson, 1992). Others have isfaction of basic human needs for food and recognized the linkages among different shelter, as well as security, equity, freedom, components and scales of agriculture to education, employment and recreation. study the effects of shocks and stresses on the The views of Douglass (1984) and Yunlong system (Williams et al., 1988; Kulshreshtha and Smit (1994) reflect the diversity in and Klein, 1989). However, most sustainability understanding of sustainability as it relates research has adopted a particular to agriculture. Drawing on this under- scale and dimension of agriculture, resulting standing, interpretations of sustainability in a myriad of definitions and methodologies follow four dominant paradigms. These are for its assessment. equity, both intergenerational and intra- generational (Smit and Smithers, 1993), food sufficiency (Smit and Brklacich, 1989), en- Defining agricultural sustainability vironmental stewardship (Smit and Smithers, Douglass (1984) identified three different 1993) and socio-economic viability views of sustainability. The first view was (Ikerd, 1990; Brklacich et al., 1991). called sustainability as food sufficiency, Despite the diversity in conceptualizing which seeks to maximize food production agricultural sustainability, there is some 18 broad consistency among definitions. Defin- Sustainability as an approach to itions generally contain three important cri- agriculture teria (Pesek, 1994): Conventional (modern) agriculture is characterized environmental quality and ecological as capital intensive, large scale, soundness; highly mechanised systems with mono- plant and animal productivity; and, cultures of crops and extensive use of arti- socio-economic viability. ficial fertilizers and pesticides. Sustainable agriculture ideologies arise as alternatives to All three criteria must be met before sus- the conventional approach (Hill and MacRae, tainable agriculture is achieved. A system 1988). These include the use of on-farm or must be ecologically sustainable or it cannot locally available resources, reduced use of persist over the long term, and thus cannot synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, increased be productive and profitable. Likewise, a sys- use of crop rotations and organic materials tem must be productive and profitable over as soil ameliorates, diversification of crop the long term or it cannot be sustained eco- and animal species and reduced stocking nomically, no matter how ecologically sound rates (Hansen, 1996). it is (Altieri, 1987; Ikerd, 1990; Stenholm According to Hansen (1996), interpreting and Waggoner, 1990; SCA, 1991). sustainability as an approach to agriculture has been useful for motivating change and Conceptual approaches to has provided a banner for agricultural reform movements. Also, research and proassessing agricultural motion of sustainability as a set of strategies sustainability has become an important part of policy making. Hansen (1996) reviewed the conceptual apan However, interpreting sustainability as proaches to agricultural sustainability approach to agriculture is not always assessment. He sees two broad interpretations. useful. Firstly, it is based on the presumed The first is a goal-prescribing benefits of listed practices but does not pro- concept, which interprets sustainability as an vide any quantitative analysis just, for exideological approach to agriculture. This con- ample, that using fewer chemicals is better. cept was developed in response to concerns Secondly, agriculture considered sustainable about the impacts of agriculture on the en- in developed countries may be inappropriate vironment, with the underlying goal of mo- for use in developing countries. The third tivating alternative agricultural practices. problem is that a distorted view of con- The second is a system-describing concept, ventional agriculture may cause approaches, which interprets sustainability as the prop- which enhance sustainability, to be rejected erty of agriculture to either fulfil a diverse because of their similarity to conventional set of goals or to continue through time. This agricultural practice (Hansen, 1996). concept relates to concerns about the impacts of global change on the viability of agriculture. The conceptual approaches to agricultural sustainability assessment are Sustainability as a property of agriculture therefore: As a property of agriculture, sustainability Sustainability as an approach to agria is interpreted as either the ability to satisfy culture diverse set of goals or an ability to continue sustainability as an alternative ideosustainable through time (Hansen, 1996). The goals of logy agriculture generally include sustainability as a set of strategies. maintenance or enhancement of the natural Sustainability as a property of agrieconomic environment, provision of human food needs, culture viability and social welfare. The sustainability as an ability to satisfy advantage of this approach is that it captures goals the multi-objective character of sus- sustainability as an ability to continue. tainability. Its main disadvantage is that the goals to be satisfied are different in each Assessing the sustainability of agriculture 19 application depending on the definitions used. Interpreting sustainability as an ability to continue is consistent with the literal interpretation of the word sustainable. Its potential usefulness comes from suggesting criteria for characterizing sustainability, providing a basis for identifying constraints and evaluating proposed approaches to its improvement (Hansen, 1996). Its main disadvantage is the lack of consistent criteria with which to assess the persistence of agri- cultural systems. Methodological approaches to assessing agricultural sustainability Different approaches to agricultural sustainability assessment have developed in association with these different conceptual approaches (Hansen, 1996). For example, assessment by adherence to prescribed ap- proaches is based on an interpretation of sustainability as an approach to agriculture. Assessment using multiple qualitative and quantitative indicators is consistent with in- terpreting sustainability as an ability to sat- isfy diverse goals. Sustainability as an ability to continue is assessed using time trends or resilience analysis. A brief outline of these methodologies follows. Adherence to prescribed approaches This approach to agricultural sustainability assessment is consistent with interpreting sustainable agriculture as the adoption of alternative agricultural practices. Here, farms are classified as sustainable if they reduce chemical inputs relative to typical farms, and include rotations, legumes, tillage and cover crops for the management of fertility, erosion and weeds (Dobbs et al., 1991). Quantitative indices of sustainability have also been developed by assigning values to production practices based on their inherent sustainability, then combining these into a composite index evaluated for each farm (Taylor et al., 1993). The limitation of these techniques is that prescribed practices deemed as sustainable in one situation may not be in another. Goldman (1995) states, for example, that the typical prescription for sustainable agriculture, and associated conceptions of agri- cultural problems, clearly addresses mainstream agricultural practice in Western industrial nations, where extensive use of mechanical, chemical, energy, and material inputs is likely to generate numerous neg- ative side effects. On the great majority of African farms, however, there is little if any use of chemical inputs, fossil fuel energy, or irrigation. Therefore, most prescriptions of sustainable agriculture are basically descriptions of agriculture in Africa and many other developing countries (Goldman, 1995). Multiple qualitative and quantitative indicators This approach to agricultural sustainability assessment is consistent with interpreting sustainability as the ability to meet a diverse set of goals where no single indicator exists. Here several system attributes believed to influence sustainability are identified and measurable indicators identified for each. A negative change in an individual indicator suggests that the system is unsustainable (Torquebiau, 1992). Recognition of the need for quantification has motivated efforts to combine indicators into integrated, quantitative measures. Lal et al. (1990) propose a quantitative equation for measuring sustainability as follows: S=f(P, E, D, C, Q,...) t where S=sustainability P=agronomic productivity E=total energy input D=measure of soil degradation C=carbon efflux from soil and the biomass into the atmosphere Q=water quality t=time Another example is that of Stockle et al. (1994) where sustainability is evaluated by assigning weights to system attributes, scoring the attributes based on specific constraints, and then combining the weights and scores to produce a figure of merit (Figure 1). 20 Low Attributes Is it profitable? Is it productive? Constraints low net income; low yields; high input costs; no markets lack of pest control; crops not adapted; lack of nutrients; lack of water; unstable yields; poor crop quality Sustainability trend Are soil quality standards being met? Are water quality standards being met? Are air quality standards being met? Is it energy efficient? soil erosion; salinization; alkalization; compaction; biological deterioration; organic matter decline; organic toxins chemical run-off; chemical percolation; sedimentation dust from wind erosion; odour high external inputs; inefficient use of biological resources High Are fish and wildlife habitats maintained? Is quality of life maintained? Is it socially and culturally acceptable? sedimentation; chemical run-off; lack of cover worker safety; food safety; community structure; rural development aesthetics; off-site impacts; education of public Figure 1. Evaluation diagram of farming system sustainability (Stockle et al., 1994). Productivity indices can be considered as Time trends another form of
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