Sustainable Versus Organic Agriculture

  • Juying Wu
  • Vito SardoEmail author
Part of the Sustainable Agriculture Reviews book series (SARV, volume 3)


Awareness and concern for problems related to environmental quality are growing at a steady pace: climate change, biodiversity, soil fertility decay and above all food quality and pollution are everyday subjects for debates and discussions. The complexity of the problems and the uncertainty about many basic data quite often make discussions inconclusive; even indications issued by scientific authorities are sometimes misleading, and the problems are exacerbated by the frequent influence of ideological positions. In an endeavour to contribute to clarify agriculture-related environmental issues, a review is made here of the principles of sustainable agriculture and of the ways to deal with them. The need is emphasized for a system approach which is able to reconcile economic-productive, environmental and social aspects, the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability, permitting to consider simultaneously the numerous factors concurring to determine the most appropriate production strategy, and the necessary flexibility in selecting and combining such factors is also outlined. A critical overview is made of the possible options for improving the sustainability of the four principal groups of agricultural operations: cultivation, fertilization, irrigation and pest control. For each of them, the sustainability level of various possible courses of action is estimated as resulting from their expected impact on the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability and indications are given to avoid risks deriving to agricultural sustainability from misconceptions of non-scientific approaches, including some typical of organic farming. For cultivation, the adoption of some form of conservation tillage is suggested and the various possible options are critically examined. The conclusions for fertilization are that generally the best solution is a blending of organic and mineral fertilizers and that food quality is not influenced by the origin of the fertilizer. Criteria for optimizing irrigation system design and management are illustrated, with reference to energy input, soil protection against erosion and salinity build-up, and reduction in production risks. For pest control, integrated pest management approaches including proactive activities and the parallel reduction to the possible extent of synthetic pesticide applications result in the most sustainable solution. Emphasis is given to those aspects of sustainability, such as soil and water conservation, energy savings, CO2 balance, which are often overlooked, yet are an important component of sustainability. It is argued that an effective, long-term sustainability of agriculture must primarily gain farmers acceptance and therefore selected solutions must guarantee profit levels and productivity while not increasing risks. It is concluded that since the concept of sustainability is fundamentally dynamic, site- and time-specific, proposed solutions are expected to be flexible, custom-tailored for the single farms and open to technological and scientific progress, avoiding any pre-concocted paradigm and dogmatism; as a consequence, it is evidenced that some rigid principles typical of organic farming are not compatible with sustainable agriculture.


Cultivation Fertilization Indicators Integrated pest management Irrigation Land conservation Organic farming Pest control Sustainable agriculture 



National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, USA


Conservation Technology Information Centre, USA


Desert Research Center, Egypt


European Initiative for Sustainable Development in Agriculture


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Environmental Impact Quotient




International Fund for Agricultural Development


Integrated Pest Management


International Rice Research Institute


Lethal Dose 50% (dose killing 50% of tested population)




Sustainable Agriculture Research and Development, USDA


Sustainable Agriculture Research and Development Program, USDA


United States Department of Agriculture


World Health Organization


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Beijing Research Center for Grass and EnvironmentBeijingChina
  2. 2.Department of Agricultural EngineeringUniversity of CataniaCataniaItaly

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