In simplest terms, sustainable agriculture is the production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare. This form of agriculture enables us to produce healthful food without compromising future generations' ability to do the same.
The primary benefits of sustainable agriculture are:
Sustainable farms produce crops and raise animals without relying on toxic chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, 1 or practices that degrade soil, water, or other natural resources. By growing a variety of plants and using techniques such as crop rotation, conservation tillage, and pasture-based livestock husbandry 2, sustainable farms protect biodiversity and foster the development and maintenance of healthy ecosystems.
Food production should never come at the expense of human health. Since sustainable crop farms avoid hazardous pesticides, they're able to grow fruits and vegetables that are safer for consumers, workers, and surrounding communities. Likewise, sustainable livestock farmers and ranchers raise animals without dangerous practices like use of nontherapeutic antibiotics 3 or arsenic-based growth promoters. Through careful, responsible management of livestock waste, sustainable farmers also protect humans from exposure to pathogens, toxins, and other hazardous pollutants.
A critical component of sustainable agriculture is its ability to remain economically viable, providing farmers, farmworkers, food processors, and others employed in the food system with a livable wage and safe, fair working conditions. Sustainable farms also bolster local and regional economies, creating good jobs and building strong communities.
Sustainable farmers and ranchers treat animals with care and respect, implementing livestock husbandry practices that protect animals' health and wellbeing. By raising livestock on pasture, these farmers enable their animals to move freely, engage in instinctive behaviors, consume a natural diet, and avoid the stress and illness associated with confinement.
Unfortunately, most food produced in the US is no longer grown or raised on sustainable farms. During the mid-1900s, US agriculture began to industrialize, becoming increasingly mechanized and reliant upon resource-intensive inputs like synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Over time, farms became larger, more specialized, and centralized, creating a process of extreme consolidation that drove many small farms out of business, and ultimately resulted in market control by a handful of powerful corporations.
Although industrial agriculture now produces great quantities of food at low prices, it is able to do so only by implementing practices that threaten the environment, human health, rural communities, and animal welfare.
Today, industrial crops are produced on huge monocrop 4 farms, which rely extensively on chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified crop varieties. These practices deplete and degrade soil, reduce biodiversity, 5 and generate air and water pollutants that degrade the environment and threaten the health of farmworkers, neighbors, and consumers.
The majority of meat, eggs, and dairy products are now produced on enormous industrial livestock facilities. Also known as factory farms or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations 6 ), these facilities confine thousands (and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands) of animals in cramped conditions without access to the outdoors. In addition to compromising animal welfare, factory farms generate a huge amount of waste, which pollutes air, water, and soil, degrading the natural environment and threatening public health.
Although industrial agriculture currently dominates the US food system, public awareness of the problems caused by this model has grown rapidly, building extensive support for sustainable agriculture, creating a robust market for sustainable foods, and inspiring formidable demand for agricultural policy and regulatory reform.
Sustainable Table works to support the transition to a sustainable food future by educating people about the benefits of sustainable agriculture (and the problems with the industrial alternative), and by providing tools and resources to help consumers make better food choices. Find detailed information about the food system on our issue pages, learn to shop and cook sustainably by visiting In the Kitchen, and find farms, stores, restaurants, CSAs, 7 and other sources of sustainable food using our Eat Well Guide. Be sure to visit our Take Action page to learn how you can spread the word and help build a better food system.