The Human Dimension of Agricultural Sustainability

The human element is not one third of sustainability; it is central to its implementation (Pearson 2003). The challenge of sustainability is neither wholly technical nor rational. It is one of the change in attitude and behavior. Sustainability therefore must include the social discourse where the fundamental issues are explored collaboratively within the groups or community concerned. We do not do that very well, partly because of increasing populations, complexity, distractions, and mobility, but more because of certain characteristics of the dominant paradigm that are seen as desirable (Fricker 2001).

Social constructionists and philosophers have shown that we can never truly "know" nature, as our understandings of nature are shaped by the social and cultural lenses through which we see the world. This is not to argue that "there is no real nature out there," but instead that our knowledge of nature will always be, at least partly, social (see Cronon1996; Escobar 1996). In opening nature to public attention specialists have relinquished their authority over the constitution and meanings of nature and allowed nature to be contested by a much wider variety of stakeholders (McGregor 2004). After all, the construct of a sustainable future may look very different to cultures and individuals with a tradition of a "be all you can be" philosophy as compared with those who ascribe to a "live and let live" philosophy (Goggin and Waggoner 2005). Environmental imaginaries are highly contested and can be thought of as the ways in which a society collectively constructs, interprets, and communicates nature (McGregor 2004).

It is clear that rural sustainability is being undermined by agriculture, particularly as agriculture is the dominant user of rural land. However, in discussing sustainable agriculture, the ecological dimension has tended to be privileged while the social dimension has been neglected. The current economic and ecological crisis for agriculture has, therefore, opened up the space for a discussion of what sustainable agriculture might be, and how it might be operationalized. Social sustainability in much of rural areas is still to be sought through productivity agriculture. Thus, there continues to be a trade-off between ecological priority areas and the productivity pressures of the agricultural treadmill (Ogaji 2005).

Many research works underlined the importance of social and institutional factors for facilitating and achieving sustainable agriculture. Pretty (1995) had considered that local institutions' support and groups dynamics are one of the three conditions for sustainable agriculture. Roling (1994) has used the concept of platforms to emphasize the role of collective decision-making process in the ecosystems sustainability. Sustainable agriculture must be socially constructed on the basis of different perspectives and through stakeholders' interaction. As Roling and Jiggins (1998) observed, "ecologically sound agriculture requires change not only at the farm household, but also at the level of the institutions in which it is embedded" (Gafsi et al. 2006).

It is culture, which ultimately reproduces the heterogeneous pattern of farming and the meaning and shape of locality. There is a tendency to assume that as long as the proposed systems benefit the environment and are profitable, sustainability will be achieved and the whole of society will be benefited. However, what is produced, how, and for whom, are important questions that must also be considered if a socially sustainable agriculture is to emerge (Ogaji 2005).

Ikerd et al. (1998) explained that most farmers have not integrated the economic, ecological, and social aspects of sustainability into a holistic concept of sustainable agriculture. For den Biggelaar and Suvedi (2000), farmers may have a lack of information and awareness about sustainable agriculture and its multiple-dimensions (Gafsi et al. 2006).

The social dimension of sustainability addresses the continued satisfaction of basic human needs, food, and shelter, as well as higher-level social and cultural necessities such as security, equity, freedom, education, employment, and recreation (Altieri 1992). The provision of adequate and secure agricultural products (especially food), supplied on a continual basis to meet demands, is a major objective for sustainable agriculture (Altieri 1989). In the case of developing countries, more imperative demands are often basic household or community needs in the short term in order to avoid hunger. This is known as food sufficiency or carrying capacity problem. In developed countries, meeting demands more often means providing both a sufficient quantity and variety of food to satisfy current consumer demands and preferences, and to assure a safe and secure supply of food (Yunlong and Smith 1994).

The social definition of sustainability commonly includes the notion of equity, including intragenerational and intergenerational equity (Brklacich et al. 1991). The former refers to the affair and equitable distribution of benefits from resource use and agricultural activity among and between countries, regions, or social groups (Altieri 1989). The latter refers to the protection of the rights and opportunities of future generations to derive benefits from resources which are in use today (Crosson 1986). Agricultural production systems, which contribute to environmental deterioration are not considered to be sustainable as they pass on to future generations increases in production costs, together with reductions in income or food security. The two types of equity are sometimes related. For example, many subsistence farmers are forced to employ farming practices that provide immediate rewards, but also degrade the environment and thereby impair future generations' opportunities for sustainability (Yunlong and Smith 1994).

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