Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture

Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright King's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 810/90
Publication Date: July 2015
Order#: 15-023
Last Reviewed: July 2015
Written by: N. Betts

Sustainable agriculture is ...

"the efficient production of safe, high-quality agricultural product, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of the farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species."

(Sustainable Agricultural Initiative Platform, 2010)

Table of Contents

Consumers are increasingly concerned with how their food is grown and processed. The largest component within the supply chain is the production of the food itself - agriculture. Food processors and retailers need long-term and ever-increasing supplies of quality raw materials.

Unpredictable weather extremes and global water scarcity make agricultural production and food processing increasingly volatile. Sustainable agricultural practices help ensure businesses along the entire supply chain have reliable sources of product. At the same time, reliability creates new opportunities for enhanced branding to meet consumer demand. Sustainable sourcing is a point of differentiation in the marketplace, and retailers are increasingly looking to farmers to provide sustainably produced products.

Defining Sustainability On-Farm

Sustainable agriculture is defined by three interactive components: economic profitability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility.

The term "sustainability," as it applies to agriculture, describes a holistic, long-term approach to business on-farm, that means maximizing economic and environmental stability, equity and health of the farm, business and family.

A sustainable approach to farming involves more than talking about environmental actions or maximizing profits.

Sustainability focuses on business process and practices, rather than a specific food, fibre or feed output. It integrates economic, environmental and societal values to create a "triple bottom line" (TBL) when reviewing the impacts of the business as a whole. This is very different from a purely profit-driven approach, where businesses benefit economically but often at the expense of the environment and society.

Agricultural Context

There is a growing global demand to increase sustainability in agriculture. What this means on-farm differs depending on where the farm is (the place), what the farm produces (the product), and where the product is sold and for what price (the price).

Regardless of what is purchased, grown or sold, there are broad concepts that can be adapted in order to increase the sustainability of every agri-business by addressing the TBL of economic profitability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility.

While these components are discussed separately below, their goals overlap, affecting and influencing each other. For example, economic decisions have an impact on environmental and social components; environmental actions taken affect economic output and social well-being.

Economic Profitability

To be sustainable, a farm must be economically viable. While the environmental and social spheres of sustainability may not always translate into immediate economic profit, sustainable practices will have a positive economic impact on the farm.

For example, the diversification of crops can help reduce financial risk over time, while improving water quality and increasing other environmental benefits that raise the value of the farm itself.

These factors must be taken into consideration when managing a farm business.

Production and machinery costs are directly affected by sustainable farming practices. Fertilizer and pesticide applications can be applied responsibly and, in most cases, reduced, based on crop rotation, variety selection or market availability for the end-product. Sometimes, overall yield may decrease, but differences between production cost and revenue can be improved, leading to increased profitability for the farm. Likewise, management, marketing skills and the experience of decision-makers will have direct economic impact on the business.

Indicators of a farm's economic profitability may include:

  • increasing net worth or savings
  • consistently decreasing debt
  • consistently profitable farm, year after year

Environmental Stewardship

Stewardship is a familiar concept to farmers. For many, this is what comes to mind when they think of sustainable agriculture. Environmental stewardship uses ecologically sound practices that have a neutral or positive impact on the natural and non-renewable resources used on-farm. It can mean reversing damage that has already occurred, such as soil erosion or draining of wetlands. It can also be enhanced by taking steps to prevent the future degradation of land and water resources through conservation practices such as:

  • naturalizing riparian zones
  • using smart cattle-watering practices
  • establishing proper cover crops

These practices have a direct impact on the cost of production and the economic profitability components of sustainable agriculture.

Another key to successful environmental stewardship lies in soil health. Maintaining adequate organic matter, biological activity and nutrient balance in your soil will help feed your crops over the long term, reducing or eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers.

There are many ways to enhance soil fertility and improve soil health, such as including legumes in crop rotation, using manure or compost instead of and/or in complement to synthetic fertilizers, and maintaining a working knowledge of the fertility of the fields so as to properly manage them.

Other stewardship concepts include:

  • protecting water quality
  • establishing year-round soil cover (residue or cover crop)
  • integrating crop and animal systems to maximize efficiencies, nutrients and energy
  • controlling invasive plants

Some traditional practices conflict with sustainable practices, because they severely damage the soil structure and ability of a field to adapt to extreme weather events, climate change and the stresses of intensive crop production.

All practices, new and traditional, must be considered when implementing sustainable farming practices.

Social Responsibility

Social responsibility relates to the quality of life for everyone who interacts with the business: employees, customers, neighbours, local community members and the farmer. The most prominent examples of this in rural Ontario are agricultural cooperatives, farmers' markets, on-farm events and twilight tours. Other examples occur within the business itself, such as fair treatment of workers and good business practices.

Some indicators of social responsibility include:

  • support for other local businesses and families within the community, circulating money within the local as well as the global economy
  • a stable or increasing rural community population
  • return of post-secondary school graduates to the community after graduation, to family farms or associated businesses.


Sustainable agriculture is defined by three interactive components: economic profitability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility. It is important that sustainability is embraced at all levels of the supply chain. Farm practices can have compound effects across the entire supply chain in very complex ways, both positive and negative.

Sustainability is a goal. However, a farm should never expect to "achieve sustainability." As farm practices become more sustainable, farmers gain a deeper understanding of the natural resources they steward and how this affects their business.

A competent working knowledge of sustainability creates further opportunities for new sustainability practices in agriculture. This in turn increases the farmer's ability to respond to market pressures and environmental conditions, and help develop a robust and resilient business. The profit in sustainable practices is both tangible and intangible. It includes economic gain, environmental stability and social benefit.

Sustainability in agriculture, like the rotation of the seasons, is a never-ending journey, which is why it is so important to continue to work towards this goal.

This Factsheet was written by Nick Betts, Business Management Specialist, OMAFRA, Guelph.

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