11 Principles of Sustainable Agriculture Explained in Detail

Principles of sustainable agriculture are; resource conservation, environmental protection, productivity, crop management, livestock management, economic growth, environmental management, social sustainability, innovation, soil restoration and climate change-reversal.

This article discusses the sustainable agricultural principles as outlined below;


-Overview of the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

-Dynamic Balance as one of the Fundamental Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

-Integrated Management as one of the Fundamental Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

-Social Development as one of the Fundamental Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

-Regenerative Design as one of the Fundamental Principles of Sustainable Agriculture






Overview of the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

The underlying principle of sustainable agriculture is the achievement of agricultural productivity at the present, without compromising the ability to be productive in the future.

This is also the underlying principle of sustainable development, and can be considered the most basic objective and outline for all forms of sustainability.

In order for agriculture to become sustainable; the environmental, economic and social aspects of agriculture must be addressed. Based on this, the four fundamental principles of sustainable agriculture can be identified as; dynamic balance, integrated management, social development and regenerative design [13].

All other principles of sustainable agriculture can be categorized under these fundamentals, as shown below;




-Dynamic Balance as one of the Fundamental Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

1). Natural Resource Conservation as one of the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

The effectiveness of all other principles of sustainable agriculture depends on conservation of natural resources.

This is simply because sustainability of any form cannot be achieved without a conservative approach to the use of available resources.

In agriculture, the natural resources of importance are; soil, water, nutrients, and energy.

There are various approaches to resource conservation in agriculture, and these are based upon a set of practices that optimize how available resources are used [7].

To further define the practices that fall under resource conservation, it is necessary to highlight the concept of conservation agriculture (CA).

Conservation agriculture is one of the elements of sustainable agriculture. The aim of this practice is to maximize productivity by applying efficient cultivation and livestock rearing techniques, while ensuring that resources are used effectively without wastage [2].

Resource conservation results in diverse benefits for the farmer and the agricultural economy because it helps to address multiple problems involving crop yield, livestock nutrition and health, and environmental quality.

Some practices of sustainable agriculture which represent this principle include sustainable irrigation system, organic farming and integrated crop management. Each of these practices is geared toward minimizing wastage of resources through effective use


2). Environmental Protection, Remediation and Enhancement (EPRE)

Environmental protection, remediation and enhancement are principles of sustainable agriculture which bear close relationship to each other as can be addressed as parts of a unified concept.

The ‘unified concept’ that binds these principles is the concept of environmental sustainability.

In EPRE, the main goal is to mitigate environmental problems that arise as a result of agricultural methods and practices, while selecting and modifying other methods that are likely to benefit the environment.

Both abiotic and biotic components of the environment like soil, water, air, and organisms are affected by agriculture. Protecting the environment means protecting these components from being affected negatively.

While there are many ways to achieve this; components and elements of sustainable agriculture like agroecology and agroforestry are classic examples of environmental management in agriculture.

Waste-to-energy practices (which are part of environmental protection) such as pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion can be used to manage agricultural organic waste by converting it to biofuel using any of various biomass-conversion methods [1].

By this approach, energy conservation and energy efficiency can both be achieved through the production of useful renewable energy from agricultural biomass. It also reduces the volume of greenhouse emissions released into the atmosphere, and mitigates the risk of global warming.

Environmental remediation can be achieved when appropriate measures are taken to prevent further degradation of the environment, and to improve air quality, water quality and soil fertility.

Such remediation is achieved gradually using approaches like soil conservation and landscape management, that are designed to both mitigate and reverse environmental degradation.


3). Productivity as one of the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

Productivity is a major indicator of effective agricultural practice [3].

However, being one of the principles of sustainable agriculture, economic productivity has minimal value if it occurs at the expense of environmental and social productivity.

What this implies is that agricultural productivity must be improved while natural resources and environmental quality are being conserved [10]. Only under such conditions can agricultural development be truly sustainable.

The goal of improving productivity itself is to boost the quantity and quality of agricultural supply; in the form of food and raw materials.

Improvement of agricultural productivity has many positive implications. These include a boost in bioenergy production, food security and environment-friendly products like biodegradable plastics.

Principles of Sustainable Agriculture: Productivity (Credit: Oxfam East Africa 2010 .CC BY 2.0.)
Principles of Sustainable Agriculture: Productivity (Credit: Oxfam East Africa 2010 .CC BY 2.0.)


-Integrated Management as one of the Fundamental Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

4). Integrated Crop Management as one of the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

Integrated crop management (ICM) is a holistic crop production system that optimizes all factors that are linked to crop yield, including soil fertility, pest and disease control, and water conservation among others.

The aim of ICM is to make crop farming sustainable by attending to the overall situation or condition of cultivation on the farm [8].

As a principle of sustainable agriculture, it seeks to unify the practices of soil preparation, conservation, cultivation, landscape management, and environmental protection.

To achieve this, all farming decisions must be made with consideration of specific circumstances and requirements, in order to select the most suitable and effective approach.

Integrated crop management practices are relevant all through the life of an agricultural project or farm, which include pre- and post-planting periods. This ensures that all factors aside actual crop production are handled effectively.


5). Integrated Livestock Management

Integrated livestock management (ILM) is a sustainable agricultural approach whereby methods, materials and solutions are applied to rear livestock in a manner that does not deplete resources or degrade the environment.

Organic methods are intensively used in feeding livestock and controlling the spread of pests and disease. Often, the feed given to livestock is derived from crops specifically grown on the same farm for this purpose.

Integrated livestock management is a highly productive principle especially when crop production is integrated with livestock production in agricultural projects where ILM is applied.

In these projects, the hybrid approach of integrated crop and livestock management is referred to as integrated crop-livestock system (ICLS) [4]. Here, crops provide nutrition for livestock, which in turn produce organic manure to boost soil fertility and crop yield.

The crops used as feed may be either residue or part of a crop rotation scheme, such as cover crops.

Best results in integrated livestock management are achieved when care is taken to select the best combination of methods, materials and products to include in a project. This selection depends on climatic, edaphic (soil-related), and biological conditions of the ecosystem in which agriculture is being developed.


-Social Development as one of the Fundamental Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

6). Sustainable Agro-Economic Growth as one of the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

“Agro economy” is a term that is used to describe the commercial and economic aspects and potentials of agriculture.

One of the well-known principles of sustainable agriculture is that it must achieve long-term profitability while minimizing negative environmental and social impacts [11].

An alternative way to describe this is to state that sustainable agriculture seeks economic profitability at the present without compromising potential future profitability.

In order for this aim to be achieved, socioeconomic equity and environmental stability are two objectives that must be taken seriously when making decisions and taking steps to optimize the economic profits of agriculture.

An effective sustainable farming approach leads to a diversified agro economy, where multiple categories of products and raw materials like food, biofuel, bioplastics, leather, and biochemical products are developed.

On a large scale, a sustainable agro economy leads to increase in job creation, food security, environment quality, environment-friendly products, resource conservation and general public health.

Sustainable agro economic growth will lead to growth in the food, electricity generation, energy and manufacturing sectors in a non-hazardous way, by unifying the approach to profitable production in all these sectors, to the ethical procedures needed to protect important environmental resources.


7). Sustainable Agroforestry and Environmental Management

Agroforestry is an element of sustainable agriculture that is defined by the integration of agricultural crops with woody perennial species of trees and shrubs [6].

The application of agroforestry techniques in farming is a form of environmental management which combines remediation and enhancement of the environment with conservation of resources.

As a result, several environmental challenges related to agriculture are tackled effectively through agroforestry. Examples of these are deforestation, soil degradation and erosion [12].

The concept of environmental management in agriculture is broad and extends beyond agroforestry. It includes all techniques and schemes that are geared toward protecting the ecosystem from negative consequences of human activities, and improving the general quality of soil, air and water.


8). Social and Ecologic Resilience

Social development is an effect of sustainable agriculture [5]. This is also the case for ecologic resilience.

When ethics and optimal production methods are utilized in agriculture, ecologic problems of environmental degradation and resource wastage are controlled. This leads to long-term self-sustainability in agricultural ecosystems, and resilience against natural hazards and manmade changes like flooding, climate change and global warming.

With such ecologic resilience, social development may occur. One of the most important principles of sustainable agriculture is the eradication of world hunger, poverty, food insecurity and economic recession. These are all included among the sustainable development goals.

Sustainable agriculture can address most of these issues, if it is practiced effectively. Through job creation, renewable energy development (bioenergy), environment-friendly products, and conservation of resources; the living conditions of the general public can be improved.


-Regenerative Design as one of the Fundamental Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

9). Agricultural Innovation as one of the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

Agricultural innovation refers to the process by which new methods, materials and products are invented, introduced and adopted into the field of agriculture [14].  

Innovation is one of the principles of sustainable agriculture. The aim of this innovation is to improve agricultural practice, by making it more effective and productive, and reducing the rate of consumption of time, equipment, labor and natural resources.

It is important to point out that agricultural innovation can take diverse forms. It can be introduced by individuals, co-operations or agencies, and may range from a minor improvement of an existing method or product, to the development of entirely new methods and products.

Agricultural innovation is also important as a tangible proof of the advancement of farming practices and technologies. The new introductions are made to suit the needs and economic expectations of both farmers, investors and the general public, while fulfilling the ethical requirements of sustainable development.

Agricultural innovation is known to impact the areas of farming technology, food production methods, processing, energy production, energy conservation, energy efficiency of agricultural processes and quality/environment-friendliness of products.

Principles of Sustainable Agriculture: Agricultural Innovation (Credit: USAID Pakistan 2014)
Principles of Sustainable Agriculture: Agricultural Innovation (Credit: USAID Pakistan 2014)


10). Soil Restoration

Soil restoration may be described as the process by which the structure and composition of soil are improved.

In soil restoration, measures are taken to minimize unhealthy compaction while regenerating organic matter and microbial communities in soil. Re-vegetation and composting can be used to boost soil fertility.

Bioremediation and other methods can be utilized to eliminate pollutants like heavy metals and hydrocarbons from soil [15], while conservation of water and nutrients can also be practiced.

Soil restoration enhances soil quality and therefore improves the quality and sustainability of agricultural production.


11). Climate Change Reversal as one of the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

The reversal of climate change is one of the benefits associated with regenerative agriculture [9].

Particularly, this reversal is believed to be possible through the sequestration of carbon in soil and its resultant reduction in the atmosphere.

A sustainable approach to farming whereby cultivation and livestock rearing are performed with due consideration of the effects of these practices on the environment, will mitigate greenhouse emissions and climate change.

Techniques included in regenerative agriculture for climate change reversal include; crop rotation, integrated crop-livestock system, cover cropping and composting.



Principles of sustainable agriculture are;

  1. Natural Resource Conservation
  2. Environmental Protection, Remediation and Enhancement (EPRE)
  3. Productivity
  4. Integrated Crop Management (ICM)
  5. Integrated Livestock Management
  6. Sustainable Agro-Economic Growth
  7. Sustainable Agroforestry and Environmental Management
  8. Social and Ecologic Resilience
  9. Agricultural Innovation
  10. Soil Restoration
  11. Climate Change Reversal



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