What is Sustainable Agriculture?

May 14, 2021 | Agriculture, Clear Water Farms, Drinking Water, Groundwater


When people think of what Wisconsin looks like, chances are they think of pristine lakes and rivers threaded through the Northwoods. Or maybe they think of farmland—green fields, black earth, dotted with red barns and spotted cows. These two parts, which sit so naturally together in people’s minds and our state’s identity are in a great deal of tension. Agriculture generates more than $104 billion annually in the state and accounts for more than 11 percent of the state’s employment. But it also produces the majority of the water pollution—especially excess plant nutrients—which impair aquatic ecosystems and are a public health hazard.

For both economic and cultural reasons there’s a strong desire to keep farming in Wisconsin, so the hope has been to find a way to make environmental health and agriculture compatible. “Conservation agriculture,” “sustainable agriculture,” and “regenerative agriculture,” are all used to describe this. Though they admit of lots of different definitions and distinctions, they share this central desire to make farming compatible with environmental goals.

People have a lot of different things in their heads when they hear words like “sustainable” attached to something. So, it pays to take a second and think about what we really are trying to convey, regardless of which buzzword we land on. It turns out to matter a lot more, I think, that we understand what we’re trying to say than the specific way that we say it.


Conservation Agriculture

When people think about what “conservation” means, they often think in terms of a practice operating so as not to deplete the resource base upon which it depends. If farming is sustainable with respect to its soil or water on this definition, it means that the way the farming is done does not reduce the soil’s function and the water’s quality and availability.

Taken on its face, this is a pretty narrow idea—limited to making efficient use of existing resources in order to prevent farming from undermining its own productivity. It’s “conservation” in the classic sense of not using up too much of a thing too quickly so that we can continue to use it over time.

This framing, however, seems to make sustainable agriculture compatible with significant environmental harms. A farm can protect its own soil fertility and water quality while still practicing mostly conventional tillage and losing lots of nutrients to groundwater. But this isn’t generally what people mean by sustainable agriculture anymore, if they ever did.


Sustainable Agriculture

The narrow focus on efficiency of productivity is just too limited. “Sustainable agriculture” was meant to capture the idea that what counts as efficient depends a lot on the aims and values we have. For instance, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition defines the idea as making the most efficient use of non-renewable resources while satisfying human food needs, “enhancing” environmental quality, making farms profitable, and improving people’s quality of life. The hope here is that efficient on farm use of resources achieves these goals.

There is a lot of disagreement about what, exactly, it means to satisfy human needs and improve quality of life (which needs? Whose?) or what sort of environmental quality we want (better? Relative to pre-settlement?). It’s also unclear that they don’t have their own internal conflicts (can we have economically viable farms and enhance environmental quality under current market conditions?). Some of these are empirical questions, some of them are more philosophical and political.

Sustainable agriculture necessarily brings up these value questions. We’d all prefer for science to simply recommend the most efficient strategies to reduce nutrient loss to groundwater. But sustainability is always relative to a view about what the efficiency is for, so we must wade into these discussions to know what sustainable agriculture means.

Regenerative Agriculture 2020

This is General Mills’ overview of their “regenerative agriculture” strategy which does not deviate much from earlier versions of “sustainable agriculture” strategies, emphasizing social, economic, and environmental balancing.


Regenerative Agriculture

From one perspective the idea of “regenerative agriculture” is just an extension of sustainable agriculture in that it suggests farming should aim to restore the biological function and health of the land and water, not merely prevent it from getting worse. To make the distinction clearer, consider that we might be able to achieve sustainable agriculture largely through engineering. For example, we could capture and treat contaminated water from farms while engineering seeds that have fewer chemical input needs. But we couldn’t achieve regenerative agriculture this way since it depends on restoring more natural functions of the soil and water by farming.

Sustainable agriculture aims to make farming compatible with environmental health. Regenerative agriculture aims to make farming the engine of that compatibility. Sustainable agriculture preferences changes that make agriculture less impactful on the environment. Regenerative agriculture preferences changes that make agriculture more impactful on the environment.

Currently, the most common approaches to regenerative agriculture are framed in terms of soil health. Specifically, they include minimal disturbance of the soil by not plowing it (no-till), improving crop diversity, continuous living plant cover on all fields, and integrating livestock into cropping systems through managed grazing. All of these are designed to let the soil function more normally and build its own nutrient management systems.

Here’s a short video from the Eau Pleine Partnership for Integrated Conservation showing what this looks like up close.


Does this Matter?

Whatever we call it, sustainable or regenerative, the actual practices currently being asked of farmers are roughly similar. They both center on field practices to make the soil healthier and reduce runoff. The most apparent difference between them is a disagreement about why we’re trying to change how farming works.

And this difference is very significant. Regenerative farming might be aimed at much more than just soil health. It could include, for instance, rebuilding the local food systems destroyed by global commodities markets, reinvesting in rural communities to make farming more achievable for families who want to practice these principles. It may well include restoring equity in agricultural policy that has systematically excluded indigenous farmers and people of color. This conversation has already started.

The reality is that we do not have a single shared ideal yet, and that’s okay. In thinking this through, we will have to continuously re-evaluate our sense of what it means for farming to be compatible with environmental protection. Sustainable for whom? Regenerative to what end? These are big questions, but given how central both farming and nature are to Wisconsin’s soul, they’re worth serious reflection.