What is meant by Sustainable Agriculture?
The most widely accepted definition of sustainable development is that offered in the Brundtland report Our Common Future (UN WCED, 1987) which states that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Essentially, this definition means that in order to be classed as sustainable, farmers thinking of the long-term future need to not only consider present day economic sustainability, but also the need to maintain the environment and contribute to the social success of rural communities. However, this does not necessarily mean that the current number of farmers can be sustained, as economic forces continue to conspire to reduce their numbers.
As farmer numbers decrease, so too does the impact of farming on the social sustainability of rural areas. This, coupled with the increase in people moving out of urban areas and into areas where in the past agriculture was the primary source of income, has led to a disconnection between farmers and non-farmers that seems set to continue and worsen.
In addition, over recent years the EU support for agriculture has tended towards encouraging less extensive farming in order to promote the key principles as set out the Defra report, A Vision for the CAP (2007).
These key principles can be summarised as arguing that agriculture should:
Be competitive on the international market without relying upon economic support such as farm subsidies or trade protection measures, instead working within an open market that values safe, good quality produce.
Be subsidised by the taxpayer only when they are producing benefits that the open market does not value, such as maintaining and enhancing landscape and increasing wildlife habitat.
Be socially responsive to the changing needs of rural communities, adhering to practices that place high value on animal health and welfare while not unduly compromising international trade.
Over recent years, significant progress has been made towards these goals, with over half of farmers diversifying to find income from sources other than farming. Many redundant farm buildings have already been re-purposed, often becoming holiday lets, or home/work units, and providing a boost to the rural economy.
The increased customer awareness of the growing centralisation of the food chain and the public concern about food miles, has led to a burgeoning movement in locally sourced food and many farmers have taken advantage of the opportunity to connect with their customers directly and to add value to their produce. The growth of social media as a way for these small business to market directly to the customer is also being utilised by more producers.
The stake that farmers hold in the countryside, and the work that they do in maintaining and improving it has long been recognised. In 2006 an NFU report Living Landscapes: hidden costs of managing the landscape, estimated the value of the unpaid work with environmental benefit which has been undertaken by farmers as in excess of £400 million. At the time, this was the equivalent of £2,400 per farm.
Since the NFU report, the introduction of stewardship schemes, and the increase of organic farming and Integrated Farm Management practices have all contributed to environmental improvements and encouraged increasing biodiversity within the agricultural landscape.
Sustainable Agriculture: some problems left unresolved
There are many complexities to consider when thinking about Sustainable Agriculture. The move away from taxpayer support leaving farmers open to the full force of the markets means that many marginal areas are becoming economically unsustainable. This has led to changes in the landscape, as brush and scrub replace previously managed low-quality grassland.
As some areas may return to wilderness, others are seeing increased intensity of production. An illustration of this would be British Strawberry farmers, who by using poly-tunnels can extend the growing season from the original 6 week period to one that runs from June until mid-August. However, these poly-tunnels are considered by some to be a blight on the landscape and it has been left to individual local planning authorities to try to strike a balance between these conflicting interests.
Considering Sustainable Agriculture means recognising that the economic sustainability of agriculture and the environmental sustainability of the countryside are intertwined. And whilst falling numbers of farmers means that the direct effect of agriculture on rural social sustainability is declining, the wider indirect social impacts remain. As agriculture in the UK becomes more sustainable, it will impact not only the social fabric of the rural economy but also the landscape, with the resultant possible effect on tourism.