Online Geography Resources


Sustainable Agriculture

IB DP Geography
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Geography Starter



Sustainability is a relatively straightforward concept to define but is harder to achieve.

Think of it as a three legged stool. The stool needs all three legs to remain standing

Geography Activities



The aim of this lesson:

  • To be able to examine the concept of sustainable agriculture in terms of energy efficiency ratios and sustainable yields.
Geography Activities

Is sustainable farming possible?

Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, stewardship of both natural and human resources is of prime importance. Stewardship of human resources includes consideration of social responsibilities such as working and living conditions of labourers, the needs of rural communities, and consumer health and safety both in the present and the future. Stewardship of land and natural resources involves maintaining or enhancing this vital resource base for the long term.

Farmers, therefore, can be seen as stewards of the land. The decisions they make can cause damage to the topsoil or water balance and need to be taken carefully. This can be compromised when there is a perceived need to produce as much food as possible as quickly as possible in response to food insecurity or rapidly rising food prices.

Sustainable farming involves the production of food in such a way as to maintain the capacity for growing food from the same land in the future.

There are several key ideas which will be found on most farms which are attempting to work sustainably. Generally, these farms try to copy natural processes, which often means that they are organic, or are more likely to be organic. Areas that are commonly focused on include:

  • Conservation and soil health
  • Nutrient recycling e.g. animal waste being used for fertilizer
  • Biodiversity – this is helped through a minimal use of chemicals on the land
  • Animal welfare – more care taken with animals, and different diets perhaps
  • Fair wages and treatment for workforce – farm is part of the rural community

Instead of pushing for the maximum yield from the land, these farm look to produce the sustainable yield (the food that can be taken from the land without reducing the ability of the land to produce the same in future without external support).

Geography Activities

Maintaining soil health

One of the simplest ways of maintaining soil health is to rotate the crops. This doesn’t mean turning your carrots by 90 degrees each night, it means growing alternative crops on land from year to year.

This also has the advantage of reducing the damage caused by pests which may stay in the soil from year to year. The secret to crop rotation is the use of leguminous plants, such as beans or pulses. These help replace nitrogenous compounds in the soil, and this is vital for plant health. Many artificial fertilizers are nitrogen or nitrate based.

The search for increasing profits can lead to some farmers taking less care with the soil, even though it can take thousands of years for a thin layer of topsoil to form. The American Dust Bowl of the 1930s chronicled in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was the result of unsustainable farming practices.

Crop rotation was developed by Charles Townshend, who had an estate in Norfolk. His use of turnips in his four field rotation led to him gaining the nickname ‘Turnip Townshend’.

Crop Rotation
Geography Activities

Nutrient cycling

This might involve animal manure, or ploughing the brash or waste from harvest back into the soil. There may also be some land which has to be left for a period of time to allow the soil moisture to be replenished. In some marginal land, even turning over the soil would lose the available moisture so careful management and cropping techniques need to be used.

Using chemicals would not be seen as sustainable practice.

Free range grazing encourages this nutrient cycling to take place naturally.

Geography Activities

Sustainable eating - eating insects!

The Guardian
  Grub's up: can insects feed the world? [5 August 2013]
Geography Activities

Farm welfare

This is of increasing importance to consumers. Sales of food that has various animal welfare related badging have increased. Local sourcing, organic and free-range foods are popular, although there is often a price premium. With the increasing economic uncertainty across Europe, will there be a reduction in demand for food produced in this way, and more pressure to return to less sustainable practices ?

Some farmers also see the benefit of engaging with project such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certifications.

Walesby Farm Eggs
Image: Walesby Farm Eggs , a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial (2.0) image from geographypages's photostream
Geography Review


The US Government has an official definition of sustainable agriculture: “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, satisfy human food and fibre needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of non renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Which is basically what we said earlier, but using longer words...

Geography Activities

Is sustainable farming possible?

Considering the definition of sustainability, and the processes that are involved in most modern farming, answer the original question, with reference to specific examples that you have identified from your reading and research.

Is sustainable farming possible?

Alan Parkinson   These Geography of Food and Health resources were written by Alan Parkinson and edited by Richard Allaway. Alan is a an independent geography consultant, author and trainer, fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Chartered Geographer and founder member of the Geography Collective. on facebook
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