Module 1: Introduction to Food and Sustainable Agriculture

Right to Food

Everyone has a right to food, according to Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, published in 1976:

“The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed: (a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources”.(1)

Still, over 1 billion people globally suffer from hunger today.

Overview of Sustainable Agriculture

The Green Revolution is the recent trend in crop production of using fertilizers, pesticides, and machines to produce high crop yields. In an expert briefing at the United Nations, Menale Kassie and Precious Zikhali spoke about the benefits of the Green Revolution: it has increased world food supply, allows for greater labor efficiency, and facilitates quick fixes to production problems. Yet the Green Revolution is not without its problems; commercial farming still causes environmental damage, pollution, reliance on fossil fuels, and chronic diseases linked to agricultural chemicals.(2)

Sustainable agriculture is defined as an agricultural system "capable of maintaining [its] productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems...must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound."(3) In other words, sustainable agriculture is an alternative to industrial agriculture, and thus tries to avoid the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, monoculture, mechanization, biotechnology, and government subsidies. The three tenets of sustainable agriculture are:


(These will be discussed in greater detail below.)

Three quarters of people suffering from poverty live in rural areas, and half of those people live in smallholdings.(5) These communities are often denied access to credit for equipment, possess little or infertile land, and live in agriculturally disadvantaged areas. Because small-scale farming is more labor-intensive and less dependent on machinery, some argue that sustainable farming will assist the rural population by creating job opportunities. Increasing the number of family farms reduces social stratification and fosters community viability. Results of the Goldschmidt Study (1968) show that people living in a town (in Dinuba, California) surrounded by small family farms exhibited less poverty, better public services and facilities, higher rates of social participation, and a higher quality of life in general compared to a town surrounded by a large, commercial farm (in Arvin, California).

For examples of initiatives taken in sustainable agriculture, please visit

Food Insecurity and the State of Agriculture

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines food security as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.(6) Modern agricultural practices, trends in domestic and international trade, and barriers to food access have contributed to a global increase in food insecurity. From 2006 to 2008, the rapid rise in global food prices triggered an increase in undernourishment, with an estimated 850 million people undernourished.(7) The global economic crisis reduced incomes and increased unemployment, further limiting the poor’s access to adequate nutrition. By 2009, the FAO estimated that of the 1.02 billion undernourished people worldwide, 98% lived in developing countries.(8)

"The silent hunger crisis — affecting one sixth of all of humanity — poses a serious risk for world peace and security... For the majority of poor countries a healthy agricultural sector is essential to overcome poverty and hunger and is a pre-requisite for overall economic growth."
– FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, June 2009

As the world population grows and land and water availability remain limited, the need for a high level of agricultural productivity will be combined with competition for scarce resources. By 2050, food production is projected to increase globally by 70%. While pressure to increase productivity will impact agriculture worldwide, smaller production systems already limited by unsustainable agricultural practices will be at a competitive disadvantage.(9) Although 30% of the earth’s land is used for agricultural purposes, a lack of arable land in many regions has led to the intensification of land with crop potential.  Intensified land use, combined with poor soil management practices, limits future agricultural production capacity by reducing soil fertility, making soil vulnerable to erosion, and damaging healthy ecosystems.(10)  

Implementing sustainable agricultural practices, particularly in developing countries, may alleviate food insecurity by increasing local food availability and improving a region’s overall economic health. According to Christopher B. Barrett, a professor in Cornell University’s Department of Applied Economics and Management, “Enhanced control over productive assets and access to the technologies and markets necessary to sustainably use them to generate a stable livelihood are especially crucial to reducing vulnerability to food insecurity and facilitating the escape from poverty traps”.(11) Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), agrees, asserting that “there is little doubt that investing in smallholder agriculture is the most sustainable safety net”, particularly for developing countries.(12)

Assessing Agricultural Sustainability: Empirical Investigations and Case Studies

Economic Sustainability

Community-centered training and outreach efforts may improve agricultural economic sustainability by empowering community members. In the Kumali District of eastern Uganda, a sustainable rural livelihoods (SRL) program was established to improve food security and economic vitality through sustainable management of natural resources. The SRL program used farmer-to-farmer training and an extension approach to “demonstrate and disseminate” information on sustainable agricultural practices, from how to compost with manure to the best way to plant bananas to maximize productivity. The program also emphasized farm enterprise development, marketing, and the formation of farmer group associations.  Robert Mazur, Executive Director for Socioeconomic Development in the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods at Iowa State University, reports that the training and support provided through the SRL program led to emerging marketing associations in Kumali. Due to the project’s success, aspects of the program are being incorporated into a rural development support program run by VEDCO (Volunteer Efforts for Development Concerns), a Ugandan NGO, in nine other Ugandan districts.(13)

Using sustainable sources of nutrients, such as compost and manure, can improve soil fertility and enhance production potential, thereby decreasing dependence on synthetic inorganic fertilizers. In a study conducted from 1993 to 2001 at the Rodale Institute Experimental Farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, a maize-vegetable-wheat rotation was grown under three different treatments: compost, raw dairy manure, and conventional nitrogen fertilizer. Although all treatments produced comparably high short-term yields, compost improved soil nutrient levels and reduced nutrient loss to ground and surface water significantly more than raw dairy manure and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, improving soil fertility for future growing seasons.(14) In addition, Herencia et al. (2006) compared organic and mineral fertilizers over a 9-year period. The organic fertilizer, made of vegetable compost and residue from previous crops, resulted in greater carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium content in the soil, compared to the mineral fertilizer, and crop yield did not differ between the two conditions.(15)

Environmental Sustainability

Sustainable agricultural practices have been shown to improve soil health and reduce pesticide use.  From 1981 to 2002, conventional organic animal-based and organic legume-based cropping systems were compared at the Rodale Institute Experimental Farm. The conventional system used synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, and a simple 5-year crop rotation.  The organic animal-based system mirrored farming systems in which crops are grown for animal feed, using a more complex rotation pattern, cattle manure instead of synthetic fertilizer, and mechanical cultivation, crop rotations, and “relay cropping” (using one crop as “living mulch” for a different crop) instead of herbicides. The organic legume-based system, modeled after typical “cash grain” farms, did not use synthetic fertilizers or herbicides, instead using a winter cover crop as the nitrogen source. There was significantly more soil carbon and higher water content in the organic systems, compared to the conventional system, demonstrating that the sustainable practices improved soil fertility. In addition, under normal rainfall conditions, corn yields were similar for all three systems following the initial five-year transition period. Under drought conditions (five years between 1988 and 1998), corn yield was significantly higher in the organic systems, suggesting that a reduction in pesticide use may be achieved without sacrificing productivity.(16) 

Sustainable agriculture and organic farming may also increase biodiversity among microorganisms and local plants and animals, reducing ecosystem vulnerability and risk of crop failure.(17) In a meta-analysis of literature published before 2002, Bengtsson et al. (2005) reported that organic farming typically increased species richness; organic farms demonstrated, on average, a 30% increase in species richness over conventional farms, particularly for birds, insects, and plants. However, the authors reported that the results of previous studies were highly variable, and suggest that organic farming’s effects on species richness and abundance may depend on farm type, location, and the organism group under observation.(18) For instance, a study of olive groves in Magnesia Prefecture in Central Greece found that organic olive groves were associated with a greater species richness and diversity among herbaceous and woody plants compared to conventional olive groves, and biodiversity was positively associated with time following the transition to organic practices. However, the number of breeding bird species did not differ between olive grove types, and the authors suggest that the transition time may not have been sufficient for new species to become established in the ecosystem.(19) Further research must be conducted to elucidate the effects of organic farming on biodiversity. Hole et al. (2005) emphasize the need for longitudinal farm-level studies to investigate the potential of organic farms to reverse biodiversity losses, system-level studies to assess the specific effects of components of organic agricultural practices, and increased data collection in pastoral and upland farms.(20)   

Initiatives to preserve biodiversity among livestock and commercial produce will also be essential to sustainable agriculture. Over the past century, livestock development has focused on a small number of breeds, often at the expense of the animals’ ability to “survive, produce, and reproduce”. Following decades of irresponsible livestock development, the FAO estimates that 20% of documented livestock breeds are at risk of extinction, some of which are indigenous breeds best adapted to local conditions. Plant biodiversity is also at risk; rice, wheat, maize, and potato crops fulfill 60% of human energy needs worldwide. Increasing genetic diversity within the most prevalent crops may be necessary to protect crops from environmental stresses such as climate change, disease, or poor soil quality.(21)

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability of agricultural practices is influenced by availability of land, labor, and electricity, exposure to new technologies, regional beliefs, and farming traditions.(22) Kassie et al. (2009) investigated factors affecting the adoption of agricultural practices (composting, conservation tillage, and chemical fertilizer) in Tigray, Ethiopia. Male-headed households were found to be significantly more likely to adopt conservation tillage than were female-headed households, but there was no gender difference in the adoption of compost or chemical fertilizer. The authors postulated that the gender divide in conservation tillage might be due to women’s labor-intensive roles as mothers, in conjunction with an Ethiopian cultural taboo against women plowing. Regardless of gender, farmers in contact with extension agents were significantly more likely to adopt the technology options than were farmers who lacked access to agricultural extension services, which give farmers “access to information on innovations, advice on inputs and their use, and management of technologies”.(23) These findings suggest that researching community-specific labor availability and the sociocultural composition of different regions is necessary to develop policies that successfully promote the adoption of sustainable practices.

In addition, the formation of positive community attitudes towards sustainability may improve effective resource management.  In Australia, community participation in land care has grown substantially since the country’s first landcare group was founded in 1985. By 1999, 37% of broadacre and dairy farms had at least one associate who participated in a community landcare group. Landcare groups receive funding from the Federal Government’s Natural Heritage Trust (NHT), which develops national strategies for sustainable resource management. Increased participation in landcare fostered the development of a broader social landcare movement, focused on reversing and preventing land degradation through planting trees and “deep-rooted” pastures. Although community landcare groups helped rural areas address smaller environmental problems through re-vegetation, severe land degradation issues in Australia may require more formal government regulation and greater incentives for implementing sustainable practices.(24)    

Social (and economic) agricultural sustainability may also depend on increasing the agricultural productivity of women. The FAO estimates that increasing female productivity to the level of male farmers would increase agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 %. Currently, female farmers tend to produce lower yields than males by about 20 to 30 %, primarily due to gender differences in resource use. Educational outreach programs may encourage women to adopt more efficient and sustainable agricultural practices, and reducing non-agricultural labor demands on women may further increase farm productivity. For instance, rural female farmers are often responsible for collecting firewood, reducing the amount of time and energy they can dedicate to farming. Further, the adoption of fuel-efficient stoves can reduce firewood needs by almost 50%; in western Kenya, women using the fuel-efficient Upesi stove reported a ten-hour reduction in wood gathering per month.(25)  

Metrics for Assessing Sustainability

The sustainability of organic and conventional agricultural practices has been assessed through empirical and stimulation-based studies at the local, regional, national, and global levels. Sharma et al. (2011) presented an Agricultural Sustainability Index (ASI) to quantify and assess the farm-level social, economic, and ecological sustainability of agricultural practices in the Indian village of Gangapur over a 60-year period (1950-1960, 1980-1990, and 2000-2010). Data were collected through questionnaire-based interviews, and thirty variables were selected for inclusion in the ASI calculation. Economic sustainability was monitored by agricultural output, risk of crop failure, intensification of land use, and marketability of local products; ecological sustainability was measured by soil, air, and water quality, biodiversity, and the farmers’ ecological literacy; variables to assess social sustainability included the literacy, experience, and health of the farmer, regional population density, land availability, and social equality. The variables for each farm were scored, weighted equally, and compiled into the mathematical index. Using the ASI, the researchers found that Gangapur agricultural practices had maintained sustainability, though the analysis also allowed the researchers to suggest specific changes to improve local sustainability.(26) Although indices for evaluating sustainability must be tailored to the regions being evaluated, quantification of sustainability is necessary to assess the efficacy of agricultural practices, improve farm management, and accurately inform policies. 

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(1) Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. "Article 11."International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Proc. of General Assembly. United Nations. Web. 24 May 2012.

(2) Kassie, M., & Zikhali, P. (2009). Brief on sustainable agriculture. Sustainable Land Management & Agricultural Practices in Africa: Bridging the Gap between Research & Farmers, Othenburg, Sweden.

(3) John Ikerd, as quoted by Richard Duesterhaus in "Sustainability’s Promise," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (Jan.-Feb. 1990) 45(1): p.4. NAL Call # 56.8 J822

(4) Kassie, M., & Zikhali, P. (2009). Brief on sustainable agriculture. Sustainable Land Management & Agricultural Practices in Africa: Bridging the Gap between Research & Farmers, Othenburg, Sweden.

(5) Deutsche Gesellschaft Für Technische Zusammenarbeit. Combating World Hunger Through Sustainable Agriculture. Munich: Deutsche Gesellschaft Für Technische Zusammenarbeit, 2004. Print.

(6) FAO. The State of Food Insecurity in the World: 2011. Rome, 2011. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

(7) Ibid.

(8) FAO. “1.02 Billion People Hungry: One-sixth of humanity undernourished- more than ever before”. FAO Media Centre. Retrieved 4 June 2012.

(9) FAO. “Managing Systems at Risk”. The State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW). Retrieved 4 June 2012.

(10) FAO. 18 April 2012. FAO Statistical Yearbook 2012. Retrieved 4 June 2012.

(11) Barrett, C.B. (2010). Measuring food insecurity. Science, 327: 825-828.

(12) FAO. “1.02 Billion People Hungry: One-sixth of humanity undernourished- more than ever before”. FAO Media Centre. Retrieved 4 June 2012.

(13) FAO. “Women in Agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development”. The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011. Retrieved 4 June 2012.

(14) Hepperly, P., Lotter, D., Ulsh, C.Z., Seidel, R., Reider, C. (2009). Compost, manure, and synthetic fertilizer influences crop yields, soil properties, nitrate leaching and crop nutrient content. Compost Science & Utilization, 17(2): 117-126.

(15) Herencia, J.F., Ruiz-Porras, J.C., Garcia-Galavis, P.A., Morillo, E., Maqueda, C. (2006). Comparison between organic and mineral fertilization for soil fertility levels, crop macronutrient concentrations, and yield. Agronomy Journal, 99(4): 973-983. 

(16) Pimentel, D., Hepperly, P., Hanson, J., Douds, D., Seidel, R. (2005). Bioscience, 55.7: 573-582.

(17) FAO. 2010. “Biodiversity for a world without hunger”. Retrieved 5 June 2012.

(18) Bengtsson, J., Ahnstrom, J., Weibul, A. (2005). The effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity and abundance: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology, 42(2): 261-269.

(19) Solomou, A., Sfougaris, A. (2011). Comparing conventional and organic olive grove in central Greece: plant and bird diversity and abundance. Renewable Agriculture & Food Systems, 26(4): 297-316.  

(20) Hole, D.G., Perkins, A.J., Wilson, J.D., Alexander, I.H., Grice, P.V., Evans, A.D. (2005). Does organic farming benefit biodiversity? Biological Conservation, 122(1): 113-130. 

(21) FAO. 2010. “Biodiversity for a world without hunger”. Retrieved 5 June 2012.

(22) Sharma, D., Shardendu, S. (2011). Assessing farm-level agricultural sustainability over a 60-year period in rural eastern India. Environmentalist, 31(3):325-337.

(23) Kassie, M., Zikhali, P., Manjur, K., Edwards, S. (2009). Adoption of sustainable agriculture practices: Evidence from a semi-arid region of Ethiopia. Natural Resources Forum, 33: 189-198.

(24) Cary, J., Webb, T. (2001). Landcare in Australia: Community participation and land management. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 56(4): 274.

(25) FAO. “Women in Agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development”. The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011. Retrieved 5 June 2012.

(26) Sharma, D., Shardendu, S. (2011). Assessing farm-level agricultural sustainability over a 60-year period in rural eastern India. Environmentalist, 31(3):325-337.