Towards a Sustainable Agriculture
- Towards a Sustainable Agriculture
by Steve Diver
Sustainable agriculture is an important element of the overall
effort to make human activities compatible with the demands of
the earth's eco-system. Thus, an understanding of the different
approaches to ecological agriculture is necessary if we want to
utilise the planet's resources wisely.
While sustainable agriculture is based on long-term goals and
not a specific set of farming practices, it is usually
accompanied by a reduction of purchased inputs in favor of
managing on-farm resources. A good example is reliance on
biologically-fixed nitrogen from legumes as versus manufactured
nitrogen fertilizers. Low-input agriculture is one of several
alternative farming systems whose methods are adaptable to
Low-input farming is based on a reduction--but not necessarily
elimination--of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and
herbicides. Farmers are adopting these practices primarily to
reduce costs, but also because they want to minimize impact on
the environment or because they perceive future pesticide
In a search for information on how to farm with fewer chemicals,
it is helpful to examine alternative farming systems in
existence that largely exclude chemicals in favor of biological
farming practices. Experiences of producers who've successfully
practiced these methods are valuable to farmers considering a
transition to low-input sustainable agriculture.
Alternative Farming Systems
There are four established approaches to alternative farming in
the U.S. A common thread in all four schools is an emphasis on
biological systems to supply fertility and pest control rather
than chemical inputs.
Organic farming is the most widely recognized alternative
farming system. Modern organic farming evolved as an alternative
to chemical agriculture in the 1940s, largely in response to the
publications of J.I. Rodale in the U.S., Lady Eve Balfour in
England, and Sir Albert Howard in India.
In 1980, U.S.D.A. released a landmark report titled Report and
Recommendations on Organic Farming  in which organic farming
was defined as such:
Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely
excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers,
pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To
the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon
crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green
manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation,
mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to
maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients,
and to control insects, weeds, and other pests.
In the 70s and 80s, organic certification of farms emerged as a
marketing tool to insure foods produced organically met
specified standards of production. The Organic Foods Production
Act, included in the 1990 Farm Bill, enabled USDA to develop a
national program of universal standards, certification
accreditation, and food labeling. Implementation, initially
scheduled for October of 1993, was delayed due to lack of
funding and complexity of issues and is anticipated to take
effect in 1995.
Biodynamic farming evolved in Europe in the 1920s following
lectures on agriculture by the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf
Steiner. Biodynamic farming parallels organic farming in many
ways but places greater emphasis on the integration of animals
to create a closed nutrient cycle, effect of crop planting dates
in relation to the calendar, and awareness of spiritual forces
in nature. A unique feature of this system is the use of eight
specific preparations derived from cow manure, silica, and
herbal extracts to treat compost piles, soils, and crops.
Demeter (tm) is a certification program for food and feed
produced by strictly biodynamic farming methods. The Community
Supported Agriculture (CSA) marketing programs, gathering
popularity as an innovative method of subscription farming, were
largely introduced into the U.S. by the biodynamic movement. An
article on soil quality and financial performance of biodynamic
and conventional farms in New Zealand in the April 16, 1993
issue of Science. In a comparison of 16 adjacent farms, the
biodynamic farms exhibited superior soil physical, biological,
and chemical properties and were just as financially viable as
their counterparts. 
"Biological" farming has become synonymous with farmers using
the Reams fertility system as the basis for crop production. Eco-
agriculture is the term used to describe this system by the
monthly Acres, U.S.A. The Reams system is based on the LaMotte-
Morgan soil test and the use of rock phosphate, calcium
carbonate, and compost to achieve nutrient ratios of 7:1 calcium
to magnesium, 2:1 phosphorus to potassium, and so
on. "Biological" farming allows the use of selected chemical
fertilizers (avoiding disruptive materials such as anhydrous
ammonia and potassium chloride) and adopts low-input approaches
to use of herbicides and insecticides.
Diagnostic instruments to monitor plant and soil conditions are
frequently used in "Biological" farming; these include
refractometers to monitor sugar content (Brix) in plant tissue
sap; electrical conductivity meters to monitor ERGS (or energy
released per gram of soil); ORPS meters (or oxygen reduction
potential of soil); and radionics. Based on data gathered,
foliar sprays containing biostimulants and soluble nutrients are
applied. The Pandol Brothers, a large commercial fruit and
vegetable operation in California, reduced their annual
pesticide bill from $500,000 to $50,000 per year after adopting
a "Biological" fertility program.
Nature Farming was developed in Japan in the 1930s by Mokichi
Okada, who later formed the Mokichi Okada Association (MOA).
Nature Farming parallels organic farming in many ways but
includes special emphasis on soil health through composts rather
than organic fertilizers, when possible. Kyusei Nature Farming,
a branch group, emphasizes use of microbial preparations in
addition to traditional Nature Farming. Nature Farming is most
active in the Pacific rim, including California and Hawaii.
Since the late 1980s, Nature Farming has gained wider
recognition in the United States through the coordinated efforts
of MOA and the Rodale Institute in the formation of the World
Sustainable Agriculture Association (WSAA). The WSAA and MOA
sponsor annual conferences on Nature Farming and sustainable
agriculture. Kyusei Nature Farming conducts on-farm research in
In addition to these methods-based approaches to sustainable
farming, regenerative agriculture and permaculture are widely
recognized in the U.S. and abroad. However, these latter
systems, like sustainable agriculture, are more conceptually
oriented than methods-based.
Regenerative agriculture became the preferred term of the
Rodale Institute in the late 1970s and 80s under the direction
of Robert Rodale. Regenerative agriculture builds on nature's
own inherent capacity to cope with pests, enhance soil
fertility, and increase productivity. It implies a continuing
ability to re- create the resources that the system requires. In
practice, regenerative agriculture uses low-input and organic
farming systems as a framework to achieve these goals.
Permaculture is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" and
was coined by Bill Mollison, an Australian forest ecologist, in
1978. Permaculture is concerned with designing ecological human
habitats and food production systems, and follows specific
guidelines and principles in the design of these systems. To the
extent that permaculture is not a production system, per se, but
rather a land use planning philosophy, it is not limited to a
specific method of production. Thus, practically any site-
specific ecological farming system is amenable to permaculture.
A common thread among all six schools is an opposing world view
to the industrial model of agriculture. These competing
paradigms were summarized in "Conventional Versus Alternative
Agriculture: The Paradigmatic Roots of the Debate"  as:
centralization vs. decentralization
dependence vs. independence
competition vs. community
dominance of nature vs. harmony with nature
specialization vs. diversity
exploitation vs. restraint
These objectives obviously have more to do with societal and
economic responses to modern industrial agriculture than they do
with farming practice A or farming practice B. Nevertheless,
they underscore the sometimes contentious debate between
sustainable farming advocates and supporters of high-input
Evolution of Sustainable Agriculture
In the 1960s and 70s, a growing environmental agriculture
movement evolved in response to increasing soil erosion,
pesticide use, and groundwater contamination. Simultaneously,
economic conditions for farmers were becoming more stressful and
the number of family farms declined.
In 1980 Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Salina, KS, began
using the term "sustainable agriculture" to describe an
alternative system of agriculture based upon resource
conservation and quality of rural life. Through the lobbying
efforts of several nonprofit farming organizations, Congress
passed legislation in the 1985 Farm Bill that mandated
implementation of a low-input sustainable agriculture program by
the Department of Agriculture.
In 1988 U.S.D.A. initiated the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture
research and education program, or LISA. In 1991 the name of
this program was changed to the Sustainable Agriculture Research
and Education Program, or SARE. Funds made available through the
LISA/SARE programs have resulted in significant additions to
landgrant research and extension programs in the last five
While sustainable agriculture has become the umbrella under
which many of the above-mentioned alternative farming systems
fall, it is important to note that sustainable agriculture is
really a long-term goal, not a specific set of farming
practices. In Sustainable Agriculture in Temperate Zones 
sustainable agriculture was defined as such:
Sustainable Agriculture is a philosophy based on human goals and
on understanding the long-term impact of our activities on the
environment and on other species. Use of this philosophy guides
our application of prior experience and the latest scientific
advances to create integrated, resource-conserving, equitable
farming systems. These systems reduce environmental degradation,
maintain agricultural productivity, promote economic viability
in both the short and long term and maintain stable rural
communities and quality of life.
Three indicators that appear most frequently in a definition of
sustainable agriculture are:
In this context, sustainable agriculture embraces all
agricultural systems striving to meet these criteria. Many
aspects of modern conventional agriculture are included in
sustainable agriculture, just as are many aspects of alternative
One aspect of modern agriculture receiving a lot of attention in
the sustainable agriculture discussion is the use of chemical
inputs to supply fertility and pest control. While agriculture
chemicals will continue to play an important role in American
agriculture, many farmers are looking at alternatives due to
environmental, economical, or regulatory reasons. In a
transition to farming systems more reliant on biological methods
of production, low-input farming serves as an intermediary step.
The term low-input agriculture has been defined as a production
activity that uses synthetic fertilizers or pesticides below
rates commonly recommended by the Extension Service. It does not
mean elimination of these materials. Yields are maintained
through greater emphasis on cultural practices, IPM, and
utilization of on-farm resources and management.
Although the term "low-input farming" has often been used to
describe any system of alternative agriculture, it can be seen
that it is distinctly different from organic farming, etc.
Nevertheless, any system that reduces purchased chemical inputs
can be called low-input farming.
As research funded through U.S.D.A.'s LISA/SARE program has
emerged, it is apparent that many Extension programs are now
offering low-input practices as a regular option for growers.
Examples of low-input agriculture Extension Service programs in
the United States:
University of Arkansas reduced herbicide program for soybeans
University of Massachusetts low-spray apple orchard program
Pennsylvania State University living mulches for vegetables
In Oklahoma, speakers have reported at Horticulture Industries
Show meetings that: (1) poultry litter can replace nitrogen
fertilizers in the production of watermelons; (2) legume cover
crops can supply the total nitrogen requirements of pecan trees;
and, (3) two timely applications of a synthetic insecticide can
produce a full crop of worm-free apples.
In Arkansas, speakers have reported at the Arkansas Society for
Horticultural Science meetings that: (1) compost amended potting
mixes produce superior vegetable transplants than traditional
soilless mixes; (2) no-till vegetable systems are feasible using
reduced herbicide rates to kill cover crops; and, (3)
subterranean clover living mulches supply nitrogen and weed
control in peach orchards.
Integrated pest management is probably the oldest and most
widely recognized Extension Service program devoted to low-input
agriculture. However, only recently have the "non-chemical"
approaches--such as cultural, mechanical, and biological--within
the IPM framework been emphasized over the chemical component.
Some programs, in fact, are now termed "biologically-intensive
In Oklahoma, low-input sustainable agriculture is being
practiced on many farms and ranches. Extension efforts are
needed to photograph and document these practices for wider
distribution. Research efforts are needed to validate practices
through on-farm research for wider application.
Finally, in the adoption of sustainable farming practices that
depend on a higher degree of management of biological resources,
it is helpful to remember one or two ideas about priorities in
"Any system that allows people to get started, however imperfect
it might be, is the right system for that situation."
That is to say that during these rough times in U.S.
agriculture, it is far more important to help young people get
into farming, and keep established farmers financially secure,
than it is to worry about eliminating tools--including
fertilizers and pesticides--that support farming. In other
words, "get the engine running first, then adjust the
USDA. 1980. Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. U.S.
Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 94 p.
Reaganold, J.P., et al. 1993. Soil quality and financial
performance of biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand.
Science. April 16. p. 344-349.
Beus, C.E., and R.E. Dunlap. 1990. Conventional versus
alternative agriculture: the paradigmatic roots of the debate.
Rural Sociology. 55(4): 590-616.
Francis, C.A., C.B. Flora, and L.D. King. 1990. Sustainable
Agriculture in Temperate Zones. John Wiley & Sons, New York. 487
Alternative Farming Organizations
Rodale Institute Research Center
611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530
Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA)-International
3185 Township Rd. 179
Bellefontane, OH 43311
Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Assn.
P.O. Box 550
Kimberton, PA 19442
Josephine Porter Institute of Applied Biodynamics
P.O. Box 133
Woolwine, VA 24185
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
West 2493 County Rd. ES
East Troy, WI 53120
Acres, U.S.A. Book Store
2617-C Edenborn Ave
Metairie, LA 70002
Mokichi Okada Association
c/o Pacific Cultural Center
1835 Vancouver Drive
Honolulu, HI 96822
(808) 595-8014 Fax
Nature Farming Research & Development Center
6495 Santa Rosa Rd.
Lompac, CA 93436
(805) 736-9599 Fax
Steve Diver is a farm advisor at a sustainable farming
information center in the U.S. He can be contacted at
This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol.6,
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- interesting overview but no mention of natural way of farming or even the
notill conventional farming method .the focus is mostly on avoiding
chemicals in fertiliser and pesticides while soils get depleted thru
tilling in the first place necessiting more fertilisers creating more need
for pesticides .