In spite of some optimistic or not-so-pessimistic views (e.g. Penning de Vries et al. 1995; Avery 1999; Lomborg 2001), little doubt exists that conventional, high-input agriculture is on the whole unsustainable and that steps must be taken to curb the environmental decay. Although food quality is sufficiently protected, at least in theory, through the existing laws, and indeed no evidence is found in the scientific literature supporting or rejecting a worse quality or taste of conventional food as compared to the 'organic' food, yet the damage to the 'natural capital', not to mention the social aspects very much stressed by Ikerd (1996, 2001a, b, 2008), is certainly high.
It has been reported that in the UK the 'external costs' of agriculture in 1996 amounted to a staggering 89% of the average net farm income (Pretty et al. 2000), that annual damage by pesticides and fertilizers to water quality is suspected to range in the billions of dollars (Doran et al. 1996) and that annual off-site damages from soil erosion by water in the USA are over US$7 billion (Pimentel et al. 1993).
Many alternative, more or less fanciful approaches have been suggested to conventional agriculture, all aiming to reduce the input of non-renewable resources and all claiming to permit the achievement of sustainable agriculture, such as integrated farming, ecological farming, permaculture, organic farming, alternative agriculture, biodynamic farming and many others. Of all the above groups, only organic farming can boast an established set of officially coded rules and standards, with minor differences among different countries (European Commission 2000, 2007; FAO/WHO 2001; Australia, Haas 2006; USDA 2007), and enjoys substantial funding; nevertheless, many sound principles deserving full consideration, sometimes more rational than those of organic farming, are suggested by other systems, which can be usefully adopted in the quest for enhanced, more sustainable agro-ecosystems. Conversely some principles of organic farming are potentially hindering the progress towards sustainability, hence the need to objectively evaluate all the possible combinations of cultural practices and then select the optimized strategy for every single farm.
Integrated farming, for instance, developed by the EISA, a group of six European organizations, is based on a set of sound, sensible rules judiciously adopting some principles of organic farming, integrating them when they are insufficiently restrictive, e.g. when the need to save energy or protecting the soil is not sufficiently considered, and relaxing them when unreasonably restrictive, e.g. when they totally ban synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. EISA released a Common Codex for Integrated Farming which considers aspects of food production, economic viability, producer and consumer safety, social responsibility and conservation of the environment in a well-balanced manner (EISA 2000). Later, it also released a European Integrated Farming Framework (EISA 2006) which gives guidelines to progress beyond the National Codes of Good Agricultural Practices.
The intention here is not to debate whether intensive, high-input farming systems perform better or worse than alternative systems - it is out of discussion that they must be actually improved; the point is rather to search procedures for finding out the best combination of seriously based principles and strategies to 'sustain sustainable agriculture'. It is important in fact to work out really sound strategies able to gain a widespread and durable acceptance by farmers and operators, and therefore secure their long-term application, since really convinced farmers can eventually become 'the guardians of sustainability'.
Strategies for determining sustainability in agriculture were analyzed, among others, by Noell (2002), who compared four different approaches, 'conventional agriculture', 'integrated farming', 'ecological farming' and 'biodynamic farming', concluding that [n]either the optimistic basic assumptions of neoclassical economics with regard to the unlimited substitutability of natural capital nor the pessimistic assumptions of the ecological theory on the conservation of natural capital for future human generations (inter-generational fairness) can be scientifically proved. The "mixing ratio" of both positions in the agricultural production models and in their sustainability strategies is therefore an expression of very reasonable subjective risk attitudes in this respect.
Ekins et al. (2003) report and comment that the four kinds of sustainability proposed by Turner (1993), ranging from 'very weak' to 'very strong', suggest that the more reasonable are the intermediate categories, 'weak' and 'strong' sustainability. Their position is balanced, refusing the two extreme positions of totally neglecting natural capital and absurdly protecting it beyond any reason: the problem is to find a trade-off within the two intermediate categories.
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