In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sustainable Agriculture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Global Perspectives
  • Issues of Scale
  • Local Food
  • Urban Agriculture
  • Cultivating Practice

Geography Sustainable Agriculture
Sara Metcalf, LaDona Knigge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0042


Cultivation of plants and domestication of animals for human purposes necessarily involve transformation of land. In this way, local geographies shape and are shaped by the imprint of agriculture. Although humans devised agriculture thousands of years ago, the quest for sustainable agriculture is a recent development in agricultural practice and in academic, political, and popular discourse, emerging in reaction to increasing recognition of unsustainable industrial agricultural practices and exponential population growth. In the late 20th century, references to sustainable agriculture grew in proportion to an expanding discourse on sustainable development as that which meets the needs of the present in a socially equitable manner while conserving resources for future generations. Sustainable agriculture is that which can be perpetuated indefinitely by efficiently and equitably using and replenishing resources such as soil and water rather than depleting them. As agriculture is intertwined with the food system, contemporary geographies of sustainable agriculture include the rising local food movement, channeling concerns about the global food system to build community resilience.

General Overviews

References to sustainable agriculture are abundant in literature that has emerged around the turn of the 21st century. Mason 2003 provides an accessible overview of sustainable agriculture, along with particular suggestions for making the transition from conventional to sustainable farming. An informative resource for those getting started on the topic is found in the encyclopedia Duram 2010, which untangles nomenclature associated with the sustainable agriculture, organic, and local food movements, explaining terms like “food desert” and “food miles” and providing biographical sketches of luminaries in the development of sustainable agriculture practices. The sustainable agriculture reader Pretty 2005 integrates a range of perspectives on prospects for agricultural sustainability, from both developing and industrialized countries, regarding agroecological as well as social dimensions of sustainability. Hatfield and Karlen 1994 considers the challenge of sustainable agriculture from a systems perspective, examining the necessary components required to create a given agricultural system environmentally and economically sustainable. A report reassessing the progress of and prospects for sustainable agriculture in the 21st century is National Research Council 2010. See Oxfam 2011 for a complementary primer from the perspective of food justice, calling attention to the forces that create crises in the food system and featuring several geographic case studies. The report Worldwatch Institute 2011 is dedicated to sustainable agriculture, with a focus on innovations and policies in the geographic context of sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Duram, Leslie A., ed. Encyclopedia of Organic, Sustainable, and Local Food. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

    Defining and distinguishing related concepts, this reference provides a useful introduction to the movement toward sustainable agriculture, particularly in the United States. With over 140 cross-referenced entries, this volume also includes a chronology of events shaping the course of US food production and appendixes with legislative detail.

  • Hatfield, Jerry L., and Douglas L. Karlen, eds. Sustainable Agriculture Systems. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1994.

    This volume underscores the multiple meanings implied by sustainable agriculture and explores how farming practices are best integrated into a holistic system. Researchers explore how conventional agricultural knowledge is enhanced by new understandings of sustainable practices such as water, soil, crop, and pest management.

  • Mason, John. Sustainable Agriculture. 2d ed. Collingwood, Australia: Landlinks, 2003.

    Mason provides an accessible and practical overview of the field, letting the multiplicity of sustainable agriculture increase its utility as a relative concept. A useful introduction to core concepts (e.g., systems thinking, permaculture) as well as practices to build fertile soil for a more sustainable harvest.

  • National Research Council. Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: National Academies, 2010.

    An update of the significant developments in and prospects for sustainable agriculture since the organization’s first report, Alternative Agriculture, in 1989. Taking a scientific approach, this report assesses evidence about the production, marketing, and policy options for sustainable agriculture, as well as transferability across geographical regions. Available for free download from the National Academies Press.

  • Oxfam. Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World. Oxford: Oxfam International, 2011.

    By making this report freely available in multiple electronic formats, some that include bonus features such as video clips from farmers, Oxfam intends to maximize public awareness of problems associated with the global food system. With global case studies, steps toward sustainability, equity, resilience, and prosperity are outlined. Available for free in modern eBook formats from Oxfam.

  • Pretty, Jules N., ed. The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture. London: Earthscan, 2005.

    An important reference for students seeking greater depth in the field, this edited volume contains important discussions of the ecological and humanitarian principles associated with sustainable agriculture, and case studies of transitions toward sustainability at multiple scales.

  • Worldwatch Institute. State of the World: Innovations That Nourish the Planet. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

    This edition of the annual State of the World report emphasizes the crises facing the global food system that limit the choices available to a society in which too many people go hungry. Agricultural innovations and policy solutions are explored in a range of essays and examples from sub-Saharan Africa.

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