Sustainable Agriculture – An Overview



The modernization of agriculture has increased yield but has also created many environmental concerns. Every year more than one billion tons of topsoil erode from the nation’s farmlands. This erosion reduces the productivity of the land and can cause siltation of waterways. Erosion caused by run-off carries fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides with the soil, which can corrupt watersheds and disrupt ecosystems. Not only has water quality become an issue, but water scarcity has also become a relevant global issue because agriculture heavily relies on irrigation. Similarly, because the agriculture industry relies heavily on fossil fuels, the industry produces one of the highest levels of carbon emissions. Deforestation as a result of developing new farmland can also have negative environmental impacts such as loss of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Finally, if livestock operations do not properly manage animal waste, the waste can spread disease and damage natural habitat. For more information on the law related to agriculture’s environmental impact, please see the Environmental Law Reading Room.

These environmental concerns have caused many to call for a more sustainable agricultural system. The statutory definition of sustainable agriculture is “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 agriculture economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources; integrate natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.” 7 U.S.C. § 3103(19)

However, at this time there are no specific production practices prescribed by law. The broad statutory definition has allowed farmers, authors, and organizations to interpret sustainable agriculture in slightly different ways depending on which issues they feel most strongly about. Despite variations interpreting the definition, the underlying theme remains the same; sustainable agriculture seeks to minimize the potentially negative effects that agriculture may have on the environment and consequentially on society, while maintaining agricultural production levels that provide adequate farm income. Sustainable practices can include any of the following: reducing or discontinuing the use of chemical inputs, erosion prevention plans, reduced or no tillage practices, sparing use of fossil fuels, and crop rotation.

Government Organizations

Sustainable agriculture is a way of farming; almost all aspects of a farming operation have components that can be transitioned to sustainable practices. Due to an increase in public interest in sustainability and additional opportunities for implementation of sustainable practices, many government agencies and organizations have furthered sustainable agricultural initiatives. However, there are relatively few government organizations that focus exclusively on sustainability and conservation. Of these, the most legally relevant is the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency responsible for implementation and oversight of the conservation-based sustainable agriculture programs. The NRCS also provides technical assistance for farmers and ranchers who design conservation practices.

Another important organization is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. SARE is a federally funded organization that advances farming systems that are both economically profitable and environmentally sound. SARE also compiles information and results from these programs and makes the data available to the public.

Similarly, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA, formerly the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas project) provides information and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers involved in sustainable agriculture with funds provided by a cooperative agreement between the National Center for Appropriate Technologies (NCAT) and the USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service.

Finally, the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC), a subset of the National Agricultural Library (NAL), specializes in identifying and compiling resources about sustainable food systems and agricultural practices.

Government Programs

As public concerns about the environment grows, additional federal programs designed to improve agriculture’s impact on the environment are created. Most of these programs are implemented by Farm Bill legislation. The 2014 Farm Bill (P.L. 113-79) continued and consolidated several existing programs intended to help farmers transition to more sustainable farming practices in one of three ways: (1) by subsidizing conservation improvements, (2) by providing technical assistance for conservation planning, (3) or by funding the research of sustainable issues. The 2018 Farm Bill (P.L. 115-334) reauthorized and continued many of these programs.

A program that most comprehensively reflects the sustainable movement is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) (reauthorized by the 2018 Farm Bill). Its purpose is to “promote agricultural production, forest management, and environmental quality as compatible goals.” The program provides cost sharing, payment incentives, and technical assistance to farmers and livestock producers who make conservation and environmental improvements on land devoted to agricultural production. This combination of production agriculture and environmental foresight is a central trait of sustainable agriculture.  The 2018 Farm Bill expanded eligibility for EQIP contracts and required targeted use of EQIP spending towards source water protection.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP, formerly the Conservation Security Program), is intended to reward farmers who are already implementing sustainable practices (reauthorized by the 2018 Farm Bill). To be eligible, one must demonstrate that a stewardship threshold for at least one resource concern is already being met. Once a farmer is enrolled, the program provides payments for installing and adopting new conservation activities or maintaining existing ones, as well as for adopting resource-based crop rotations.

The 2014 Farm Bill also introduced two new conservation programs which combined previous existing programs: the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) (both reauthorized by the 2018 Farm Bill).  ACEP combines facets of several preexisting easement programs by establishing two types of easements: (1) the wetland reserve easements to protect and restore wetlands; and (2) the agricultural land easement program which protects usable farmland from non-agricultural uses.  RCPP combines several prior water improvement practices into one comprehensive program.  RCPP partners with state and local governments, farming cooperatives, and other conservation organizations to provide federal funding and to further water quality and conservation on a regional scale.

Finally, there are many programs that do not directly provide assistance for transitioning to sustainable agricultural practices but still promote sustainability while meeting their intended goals. For example, there are several grant programs designed to promote agricultural research for which projects devoted to the study of sustainable initiatives are expressly eligible. The Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program allows the Secretary of Agriculture to give grants for the purchase of land that provides public benefits through sustainable forestry management practices. Similarly, one of the objectives of grants awarded under the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (reauthorized by the 2018 Farm Bill) is to develop diverse, sustainable domestic sources of renewable energy and biobased products.

For more information on conservation programs, please visit the Conservation Programs Reading Room. For information on organic agricultural production, a topic related to sustainability, please visit the National Organic Program Reading Room.