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Sustainable agriculture

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Reflection


Close to one trillion people in the world do not have sufficient food for a healthy and active life. While much progress has been made towards food security in recent decades, without further urgent and coordinated action, poverty, hunger and malnutrition will continue to undermine the lives of hundreds of millions of people now and in years to come.

The world’s population reached 6 billion people in 1999 and is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2025, when 83% of the world will be living in the South. However, our long-term ability to meet growing demands for food often seems uncertain. Thus, one of our greatest challenges is increasing food production in a sustainable manner so that everyone can be adequately and nutritiously fed without over-exploiting the Earth’s ecosystems.

This module introduces the main goals of sustainable agriculture and examines a range of sustainable farming practices and case studies. As such, it develops an understanding of how sustainable farming can both enhance food production and ensure that natural resources are managed in the best way possible for long-term sustainability.

The module also provides ideas about ways in which the theme of sustainable agriculture may be integrated into the curriculum as part of the process of reorienting education towards a sustainable future.


  • To understand the nature and importance of sustainable agriculture;
  • To understand ways in which different agricultural practices can alter the environment either positively or negatively;
  • To analyse examples of farming practices that are economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible; and
  • To appreciate how enquiry learning can be used to promote an appreciation of sustainable agriculture in the school curriculum.


  1. What is sustainable agriculture?
  2. Making connections
  3. Case studies of sustainable agriculture
  4. Sustainable agriculture in the curriculum
  5. Reflection


Ho, M., Burcher, S. and Chin, L.L. (eds) (2008) Food Futures Now, Sustainable World 2nd Report, I-SIS, Oxford, UK.

Mason, J. (2003) Sustainable Agriculture [2nd Edition], Landlinks Press.

OECD (2010) Sustainable Management of Water Resources in Agriculture, OECD Publishing.

Pretty, J. (ed) (2005) The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture, Earthscan London.

Scherr, S.J. and Sthapit, S. (2009) Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use, Worldwatch institute Technical report No.179, Worldwatch Institute.

Strange, T. and Bayley, A. (2008) OECD Insights: Sustainable Development. Linking economy, society, environment, OECD Publishing.

United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (2008) The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008, Food and Agricultural Organisation, Rome.

United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (2008) World Agriculture: Towards 20125/30, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome.

Internet Sites

People and Planet – Food and Agriculture

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Network

Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development

Sustainable Development Gateway: Agriculture

United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation

World Resources Institute – Agriculture and Food

OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate – Sustainable Agriculture

Worldwatch Institute – Sustainable Agriculture Programme

Ecoagriculture Partners

Sustainable Food Laboratory

Sustainable Agriculture Education Association

Sustainable Agriculture Initiative

Sustainable Table

European Initiative for Sustainable Development in Agriculture


This module was written for UNESCO by Angela Colliver, Margaret Calder, Lisa Ryan, Clayton White and John Fien from ideas and activities initially developed by Jo-Anne Ferreira in Teaching for a Sustainable World (UNESCO – UNEP International Environmental Education Programme).

What is sustainable agriculture?

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Progress Towards Food Security

Much of the progress towards food security that was made between the 1970s and the 1990s has been reversed in recent years. At the start of the 1970s, 920 million people were chronically undernourished, with insufficient food for even low levels of activity. During the 1990s, despite continuing population growth, the figure had been reduced to just over 800 million – about 20% of the total population of the South. However, this has since risen to 963 million (2008), the vast majority of whom live in developing countries. Of these, 65% live in only seven countries: India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, as Module 14 explains, food supplies in some countries and regions are poor and in decline. For example, agricultural production has not kept pace with population growth in sub-Saharan Africa where many countries are in a worse position nutritionally than they were 40 years ago. Also the dramatic rises in the price of food over the last couple of years (most significantly during 2007) has impacted the ability of people in many countries to buy even their basic food needs.

Agriculture has changed dramatically, especially since World War II. The production of food and fibre crops and animal products has increased markedly due to new farming technologies, including new high-yield varieties of crops, mechanisation, and the increased application of pesticides and fertilisers. Government policies have also encouraged farmers to maximise production. These changes have allowed fewer farmers to produce the majority of the world’s agricultural crops.

Although these changes have had many positive effects and reduced many risks in farming, there have unfortunately also been some significant costs. These include: the clearing of native vegetation, soil erosion, the decline in soil fertility, groundwater contamination, increasing costs of production and declining returns on family farms, and the closing of services in rural communities. In many cases, these changes have forced small farmers to leave the land and move to urban areas.

The sustainable agriculture movement has grown in the past three decades as a solution to the environmental and social problems caused by conventional agricultural systems and practices. Sustainable agriculture is getting increasing support within mainstream agriculture also. This is because sustainable agriculture also offers innovative and economically viable opportunities for farmers, consumers, policymakers and many others in the food system.

Q1: Make a list of words or phrases that distinguish sustainable agriculture from conventional agriculture.

  • Review how the community group, called ‘1000 Ways to Sustainable Farming’, defines sustainable agriculture.
  • As you progress through their definition, make a note of the key words and phrases that are used.
  • Check to see if any of your words and phrases from Q1 are used.

Q2: Add five additional words or phrases that you think would be useful in defining sustainable agriculture to the list in your learning journal.

Read how six people from different parts of the world define sustainable agriculture.

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Combining these ideas, we can say that agriculture is sustainable when it is leads to long-term:

  • Farm profitability;
  • Improvements in the quality of life of farming families;
  • Vitality of rural communities, villages and small towns; and
  • Protection and conservation of the natural environment.

Q3: Is this a satisfactory definition that incorporates all the important points you think should be there? How might you add to or modify it? Write your own definition of sustainable agriculture.

Review some additional characteristics that you could have considered.

Making connections

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The definition for sustainable agriculture suggested in Activity 1 recommends an holistic approach to farming.

Holistic means ‘comprehensive’ and ‘integrated’ taking all possible elements and systems into account and valuing their interdependent relationships.

This means that an holistic approach to agriculture would recognise the linkages between the soil, vegetation, air and water and the way that these both influence, and are influenced by, the farmer’s beliefs, perceptions, ambitions, skills and knowledge, and the social, economic, cultural, and political systems in which the farm operates.

It is possible to represent the holistic nature of sustinable agriculture in a diagram.

Q4: Describe how you could explain the holistic nature of sustainable agriculture to a class you teach?

An important connection between the natural and socio-economic systems that influence agriculture is between these systems and the farming methods that are used.

There are many ways to improve the sustainability of a farming system. While these vary from country to country, region to region. Farmers trying to take a more sustainable approach share some common practices. All these practices contribute to long-term farm profitability, environmental stewardship and rural quality of life.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
IPM manages pests by combining biological, cultural, physical and chemical tools in a way that minimises economic, health and environmental risks.
Rotational Grazing
Management-intensive grazing systems take animals out of barns to pastures to provide high-quality forage and reduced feed costs while avoiding manure buildup.
Soil Conservation
Many soil conservation methods, including strip cropping, reduce tillage and “no-till,” help prevent loss of soil due to wind and water erosion.
Water Quality/Wetlands
Water conservation and protection are important parts of sustainable agriculture. Many practices improve quality of drinking and surface water, as well as to protect wetlands. Wetlands play a key role in filtering nutrients and pesticides, in addition to providing wildlife habitat.
Cover Crops
Growing plants such as rye or clover in the off season after harvesting a grain or vegetable crop provides many benefits, including weed control, erosion control, and improved soil nutrients and soil quality.
Crop/Landscape Diversity
Growing a greater variety of crops on a farm reduces risks from extremes in weather, market conditions or crop pests. It also contributes to soil conservation, wildlife habitat and increased populations of beneficial insects.
Nutrient Management
Central management of nitrogen and other plant nutrients improves the soil and protects the environment. Increased use of on-farm nutrient sources, such as manure and leguminous cover crops, reduces the need to buy fertilizer.
Agroforestry covers a range of tree uses on farms, including interplanting trees with crops or pasture, better managing woodlots, and using trees and shrubs along streams as riparian buffer strips.
Farmers often find that improved marketing provides a key way to enhance profitability. Direct marketing of agricultural goods to consumers, such as farmers’ markets, roadside stands and community-supported agriculture, is becoming much more common.

Source: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

Case studies of sustainable agriculture

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Many people around the world are using farming methods such as the ones in Activity 2 to conserve and rehabilitate their land while increasing farm productivity and economic viability.

Read case studies of what some communities or farming families in four countries are doing to practice sustainable agriculture.

Colombia Thailand USA Zimbabwe

Q5: Describe (i) the types of agriculture being practiced in two of these case studies, and (ii) identify the principles that you think underlie these practices.

Many farmers around the world are working to protect and improve their land – just like the farmers in the case studies. While their cultures and socio-economic contexts may be different, they are united by a shared set of principles.

Q6: Review your summary of the case studies and make a list of principles that are shared by the farmers.

Module 21 contains another case study of sustainable agriculture, this time from Sri Lanka. The people of the village in this case study base their farming practices on six principles:

  • Harmony with Nature
  • Variety and Diversity
  • Quality of Life
  • Small is beautiful
  • Self-reliance
  • Co-operation and Peace

Q7: To what extent were the six principles in the Sri Lankan village shared by the farmers in your two case studies?

Q8: How useful might these principles be for farmers in your country? How would the principles need to be adapted to be more culturally appropriate?

Q9: How useful might these principles be for a family or community food garden in your neighbourhood? How would the principles need to be adapted to be more culturally appropriate?

Sustainable agriculture in the curriculum

Enquiry Learning

Learning about sustainable agriculture can help students find solutions to local problems. Because sustainable agriculture is a practical topic, it lends itself to teaching through enquiry learning methods.

Identify six steps in using enquiry learning to plan a teaching unit about sustainable agriculture.

School – Community Partnerships

Education for Sustainable Development encourages strong links between schools and their communities so they can explore and seek solutions to problems involving the management of natural resources.

Read a case study from Nepal where a geography teacher formed a partnership with local village farmers to implement sustainable agricultural initiatives. Both his skills as a teacher and his commitment to sustainable futures are evident in this case study.

Analyse nine possible strategies for building strong links between your school and farmers, land managers and community groups when teaching about sustainable agriculture.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q10: Explain why it is important for all students – whether rural or urban based – to learn about sustainable agriculture.

Q11: Explain how using a school food garden in your teaching might be able to increase the focus on sustainable agriculture?