Fertilizer 101: What is Sustainable Ag?


September 3, 2014

The world’s commitment to sustainable agriculture has deep roots. Nearly 30 years ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development issued recommendations, titled Our Common Future, to increase worldwide food production in an economically viable way, while retaining the environmental integrity of global food systems.

Sustainable ag is defined as the need to accommodate for the growing demands of global food production without compromising the earth’s finite resources on which agriculture depends. One very important trait of sustainable ag is that it encompasses a variety of social, economical and environmental factors at the same time.

Agriculture can be considered sustainable when it leads to growth in five categories:

  • Natural capital – The resources used for food, fiber and wood production (notably land, water and energy).
  • Social capital – The norms, values and attitudes that lead to environmental stewardship and food security.
  • Human capital – The total capability of individuals in a society, based on their knowledge, skills, health and nutrition.
  • Physical capital – Man-made material resources such as buildings, infrastructures, tools, machinery, energy and transportation systems that increase the productivity of labor.
  • Financial capital – The flow of money in a system. Poverty remains a stumbling block for agriculture and food security.

4R Nutrient Stewardship and Sustainable Ag
The approach of the 4Rs Nutrient Stewardship is a key tool in sustainable agriculture systems. Applying the right nutrients at the right rate, at the right time and in the right placement leads to better crop performance, improved soil health, decreased pollution and the protection of wildlife — all components of natural capital. In turn, this leads to benefits for financial capital as farmers’ profits grow, leading to a higher quality of life and greater economic activity in communities around the world.

Implementation of the 4Rs also increases social, human and physical capital. The adoption of site- and crop-specific management programs, for example, implies that research by agronomists and scholars results in better communication and collective knowledge among farmers, researchers, government officials and business representatives.

Physical capital, such as roads and communication systems, also improves, as inputs and outputs are developed to move harvests and goods around the world.

When viewed holistically, 4R Nutrient Stewardship and sustainable ag have far-reaching effects beyond increased crop production and greater profits.  Learn more about the benefits of sustainable ag in the 4R Plant Nutrition Manual. Or check out our recent Fertilizer Means Food posts, Nourishing the Soil to Feed the World and Improving Human Nutrition.