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Definitions: Sustainability and Food Systems


There are many definitions of sustainable development, most of which incorporate the notion that true sustainability must balance economic, social and environmental dimensions. USDA bases its approach to agricultural sustainability on two definitions, both of which incorporate the three dimensions of sustainability:

Farm Bills: The 1977 and 1990 “Farm Bills” describe sustainable agriculture as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs;
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
  • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations;
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

Section 1404(17) of the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977 (7 U.S.C. 3103(17) and the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), Public Law 101-624. Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603, GPO, Washington, D.C., 1990 NAL Call#KF1692.A31 1990.

USDA Consensus Statement (2011): The U.S. Department of Agriculture is committed to working with partners and stakeholders toward sustainability of diverse agricultural, forest and range systems. USDA seeks to balance the goals of:

  • Satisfying human needs;
  • Enhancing environmental quality, the resource base, and ecosystem services;
  • Sustaining the economic viability of agriculture;
  • Enhancing the quality of life for farmers, ranchers, forest mangers, workers and society as a whole.

USDA integrates these goals into its policies and programs, particularly through interagency collaboration, partnership and outreach at both domestic and international levels.

USDA encourages the development and adoption of place-and-scale-appropriate management, production, distribution, and information systems that advance continuous, integrated progress toward all of these goals across landscapes, supply chains and markets. USDA also supports the principles of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” in relation to efficient product handling, processing, transportation, packaging, trade, consumption and waste management.

Food Systems

The concept of a “food system” represents a contrast to notions of agriculture and food production and consumption as a simple, linear chain from farm to table.  Food systems are instead, complex networks that include all the inputs and outputs associated with agricultural and food production and consumption.  Food systems can vary substantially from place to place and over time, depending on location specific conditions.  The food systems concept provides a comprehensive framing through which to assess the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability. 

Food systems can be defined in different ways, depending on emphasis.  USDA’s National Agricultural Library defines them simply as “everything from farm to table.”  USDA describes local and regional food systems as “place-specific clusters of agricultural producers of all kinds—farmers, ranchers, fishers—along with consumers and institutions engaged in producing, processing, distributing, and selling foods.” 

A definition used by the U.S. in its Global Food Security Strategy is “Agriculture and food systems are the intact or whole unit made up of interrelated components of people, behaviors, relationships, and material goods that interact in the production, processing, packaging, transporting, trade, marketing, consumption, and use of food, feed, and fiber through aquaculture, farming, wild fisheries, forestry, and pastoralism. The food and agriculture system operates within and is influenced by social, political, economic, and environmental contexts."

Other definitions

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) describes food systems as “Food systems encompass the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food products that originate from agriculture, forestry or fisheries, and parts of the broader economic, societal and natural environments in which they are embedded. The food system is composed of sub-systems (e.g. farming system, waste management system, input supply system, etc.) and interacts with other key systems (e.g. energy system, trade system, health system, etc.).”

The same FAO document describes a sustainable food system as “a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised. This means that:

  • It is profitable throughout (economic sustainability);
  • It has broad-based benefits for society (social sustainability); and
  • It has a positive or neutral impact on the natural environment (environmental sustainability).”