Sustainability has been described as the ability to meet core societal needs in a way that can be maintained indefinitely without significant negative effects. Accordingly, development of a sustainable agricultural production system requires defining the core societal needs from agriculture, a process that will require a collective vision of what the future characteristics of agriculture should be.

  • Satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs, and contribute to biofuel needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the resource base.
  • Sustain the economic viability of agriculture.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole.

Agricultural sustainability is a complex, dynamic, and political concept that is inherently subjective in that different groups in society place different emphasis on each of the four goals. Progress toward the four goals will require robust systems that adapt, evolve, and continue to function in the face of stresses and fluctuating conditions, are productive, use resources efficiently, and balance the four goals within enterprises or farms across and at all scales. The pursuit of sustainability is not a matter of defining sustainable or unsustainable agriculture, but rather is about assessing whether choices of farming practices and systems would lead to a more or less sustainable system as measured by the four goals. Improving sustainability will require identification of key metrics and indicators that can measure progress toward goals, together with monitoring and collecting data and using adaptive management.