Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Workers sapling vegetation in pasture"Young farmers talking in fieldSwind turbinesuSchool-page students working in vegetable gardenscalves in pasturetbee on prairie flowersainable" means many things to many people. The law that created the Leopold Center defines a sustainable agriculture as one that maintains "economic and social viability while preserving the high productivity and quality of Iowa's land."

In general, sustainable agriculture addresses the ecological, economic and social aspects of agriculture. To be sustainable, agriculture can operate only when the environment, its caretakers and surrounding communities are healthy. 

Sustainable agriculture, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1990 Farm Bill, should

"...over the long term, satisfy human needs, enhance environmental quality and natural resource base, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and integrate natural biological processes, sustain economic viability and enhance quality of life."

More definitions

Another definition comes from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program of the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). Sustainable agriculture refers to an agricultural production and distribution system that

  • Achieves the integration of natural biological cycles and controls
  • Protects and renews soil fertility and the natural resource base
  • Optimizes the management and use of on-farm resources
  • Reduces the use of nonrenewable resources and purchased production inputs
  • Provides an adequate and dependable farm income
  • Promotes opportunity in family farming and farm communities
  • Minimizes adverse impacts on health, safety, wildlife, water quality and the environment

Read more from SARE and download an award-winning publication, What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Wendell Berry may have said it best years ago in his definition:

A sustainable agriculture does not deplete soils or people.

Key components

The Center's first director, Dennis Keeney, outlined key components of sustainable agriculture in 1989:

  • Agronomic
  • Pesticides
  • Crop rotations
  • Animal husbandry
  • Social issues
  • Research
  • Role of industry
  • Cultural practices
  • Soil erosion
  • Use of scarce resources
  • Role of technologies
  • Policies
  • Education 


Interdependence also is important in sustainable agriculture, according to professor emeritus John Ikerd, University of Missouri:

A sustainable agriculture must be economically viable, socially responsible and ecologically sound. The economic, social and ecological are interrelated and all are essential to sustainability.

An agriculture that uses up or degrades its natural resource base, or pollutes the natural environment, eventually will lose its ability to produce. It's not sustainable. 

An agriculture that isn't profitable, at least over time, will not allow its farmers to stay in business. It's not sustainable. 

An agriculture that fails to meet the needs of society, as producers and citizens as well as consumers, will not be sustained by society. It's not sustainable. 

Recurring themes

This discussion is from the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California-Davis:

  • Stewardship of both natural and human resources to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
  • Systems perspective from individual fields and farms to local ecosystems and communities affected both locally and globally
  • Transition to sustainable agriculture is a process
  • Reaching the goal of sustainable agriculture is the responsibility of all participants in the system

The Library of Congress offers an excellent annotated bibliography on sustainable agriculture that lists selected research papers and dissertations, handbooks, web sites, conference proceedings and governmental publications on the topic, here.

The Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (part of the National Agriculture Library) offers an on-line publication, Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms, here.