Sustainable agriculture and its role in the future of farming are currently focus of much debate with repeated calls for agriculture to become more sustainable. However, the fashionable rush to judge agriculture as unsustainable, is misplaced. Agriculture, which has provided for the development of civic and urban society over the last 6000 years, supplies around 70% of our food needs and manages and cares for the countryside that we cherish. For a small and densly populated island, agriculture in the UK has proved remarkably sustainable.
Dictionaries define sustainable as being "the ability to maintain for a prolonged period" but there is little common agreement as to the meaning of sustainable agriculture. At a farm level organic agriculture may be sustainable because it uses relatively little external resource, but at society's level it may be unsustainable because it produces inadequate food.
Since the turn of the millenium many organisations have sought to define sustainable agriculture as they attempt to influence the future of farming in the UK. All too often these definitions pander to the specific interests of a stakeholder group or generalise widely.
"Until recently the drive for farming was produce more food. But 21st century expectations are more complex. Farming should be environmentally responsible, deliver attractive landscapes, historic features and cultural values, diversity of wildlife and habitats, public access - and still produce affordable wholesome food". Part of the The National Trust's vision for a sustainable future for farming - no small feat for the average lone farmer.
More complex definitions exist with authors attempting to define the specific sustainability of particular activities. However, such measures provide no absolute guide, merely an interpretation based on perception today. Sustainability is at its heart a relative concept.
In 2002 the Government funded Curry Report into the future of Farming and Food looked for "a profitable and sustainable farming and food sector". In separating profit and sustainability the Curry Report failed to recognise that profitability was a fundamental component of sustainable agriculture to farmers themselves.
The importance of profitability as a measure of sustainability does not yet seem to be widely understood. As a consequence the rules and regulations imposed upon UK agriculture consistently increase costs and lower international competitiveness. Ironically therefore, UK production systems are displaced by exactly those we regard as less sustainable.
If agriculture is to continue to play a role in providing the public goods that stakeholders define as making it sustainable, then economic viability too will need to become a central part of the definition. Rules and regulations that many now seek in the quest for greater sustainability are likely, ultimately, to result in exactly the opposite.