Skip Navigation
Definitions of Sustainable Agricultural Development


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.

Agriculture Fact Book:The practice of agriculture which supports sustained economic profitability, sustained quality and well-being of the environment, efficient use of natural resources, and the overall quality and availability of food and fiber for mankind.

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.


“Bruntland Report”:  “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: 1)  the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and 2) the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.”

Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Chaired by Gro Brundtland), “Our Common Future”,external link Transmitted to the General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427 - Development and International Cooperation: Environment, 1987

National Research Council, Committee on Twenty-First Century System’s Agriculture:  The Committee identified four generally agreed upon goals that help define sustainable agriculture:

  • Satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs and contribute to biofuel needs;
  • Enhance environmental quality and the resources base;
  • Sustain the economic viability of agriculture;
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers and society as a whole.

The Committee further specified that “Sustainability is best evaluated not as a particular end state, but rather as a process that moves farming systems along a trajectory toward greater sustainability on each of the four goals”. (Pg 4) National Research Council. 2010.  Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century.  National Academies Press.

The Royal Society: The concept of sustainability in the context of agricultural and food production “incorporates four key principles: 1) Persistence: the capacity to continue to deliver desired outputs over long periods of time (human generations), thus conferring predictability; 2) Resilience: the capacity to absorb, utilize or even benefit from perturbations (shocks and stresses), and so persist without qualitative changes in structure; 3) Autarchy: the capacity to deliver desired outputs from inputs and resources (factors of production) acquired from within key system boundaries; 4) Benevolence: the capacity to produce desired outputs (food, fibre, fuel, oil) while sustaining the functioning of ecosystem services and not causing depletion of natural capital (e.g. minerals, biodiversity, soil, clean water). Any system is by these principles and measures unsustainable if it depends on non-renewable inputs, cannot consistently and predictably deliver desired outputs, can only do this by requiring the cultivation of more land, and/or causes adverse and irreversible environmental impacts which threaten critical ecological functions”. (Pg 6)
The Royal Society, 2009, Reaping the Benefits: Science and the Sustainable Intensification of Global Agriculture:external link

Encyclopedia of Organic, Sustainable and Local Food (John Ikerd):Sustainable agriculture is an agriculture that is capable of indefinitely maintaining its productivity and usefulness to society.” Pg 39

John Ikerd, 2010, Encyclopedia of Organic, Sustainable & Local Food, , Leslie A. Durham (ed.), University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London.

For more definitions, see Sustainable Agriculture, Definitions and Terms (Section on A Sampling of Perspectives), Compiled by Mary Gold, Special Reference Briefs Series no. SRB 99-02, September 1999, updated 2007