Organic agriculture is a holistic system approach based upon sustainable ecosystems, safe
food production, good nutrition, animal welfare and social justice.
KEY PRINCIPLES IN SUSTAINABLE
Many different expressions have come to be used to imply greater sustainability in some
agricultural systems over prevailing ones (both pre-industrial and industrialized). These
include biodynamic, community-based, eco-agriculture, ecological, environmentally sensitive,
extensive, farm-fresh, free-range, low-input, organic, permaculture, sustainable and wise use.
There is a continuing and intense debate about whether agricultural systems using some of these
practices can qualify as sustainable.
However highly sustainable agricultural systems can be taken to mean those that aim to make the
best use of environmental goods and services while not damaging the five assets – particularly
natural, social and human capital. The key principles for sustainability are to:
(i) Integrate biological and ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil
regeneration, allelopathy, competition, predation and parasitism into food production processes;
(ii) Minimize the use of those non-renewable inputs that cause environmental damage or that
harm the health of animals, farmers and consumers;
(iii) Make good use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, so improving their self-reliance
and substituting human capital for costly external inputs;
(iv) Make productive use of people’s collective capacities to work together to solve common
agricultural and natural resource problems, such as pests, animal husbandry and welfare, disease
management, watershed, irrigation, forest and credit management.
Sustainability in agricultural systems incorporates concepts of both resilience (the capacity of
systems to resist shocks and stresses) and persistence (the capacity of systems to continue over
long periods), and addresses many wider economic, social and environmental outcomes.
Agricultural systems with high levels of social and human assets are more able to adapt to
change and innovate in the face of uncertainty. This suggests that there are likely to be many
pathways towards agricultural sustainability; no single system of technologies, inputs or
ecological management is more likely to be widely applicable than another. Agricultural
sustainability then implies the need to fit these factors to the specific circumstances of different
local agricultural systems.