Widening and Grounding Key Principles and Concepts

Up until the 1970s the agri industrial model, which had been superimposed upon much of the advanced world both in its capitalist and state socialist variants, had managed to control and legitimize itself concerning its longevity and general societal acceptance. It was as if the ideology of growth, specialization, intensity, mechanization, and increasing yields were to be never ending. From that point, however, and following Rachael Carson's trenchant critique of pesticides and insecticides in her book Silent Spring in 1962, it became clearer to the public at large that the agri industrial model which had helped to produce 'cheap foods' for the Fordist and urban growth machine, was largely about 'sustaining the unsustainable' rather than an ecologically efficient way of food production.

In ecological–economics terms it was increasingly being realized that the agri industrial system was falling victim to the second law of thermodynamics (entropy law); in that it was becoming a highly wasteful system in energy terms, with a continuous degradation of free (usable) energy into bound (unusable energy). However, this did not mean that the agri industrial model, as an unsustainable and entropy maximizing system, does not have an enormous amount of resistance to change or 'staying power'. Rather, as we have seen in the advanced economies of the past 20 years, and despite the depletion of the 'natural capital' of agroecosystems, the agri industrial/bioscience system has a remarkable longevity.

Nevertheless, the slow realization of its inherent unsustainability was taken up by environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and different publics and consumer groups, and became gradually institutionalized into government bodies at national and supernational levels (e.g., the European Union's series of Environmental Action Programmes from the 1970s onward). This period of 'ecological modernization' was embodied in the World Commission on Environment and Development's 'Bruntland' report, 'Our common future' in 1987; with agriculture being increasingly seen as a threatened 'renewable resource'. Writers have delineated several key features of the 'sustainability of unsustainability' thesis, which is implicit within the agri industrial model. These include: (1) the tendency toward monoculture/specialization of production systems and the creation of spatial homogeneity and subsequent declines in spatial and biodiversity; (2) the intensification of production through expanded use of external chemical, energy, and irrigation inputs; (3) the concentration of livestock in space, and the spatial separation of crop and livestock production; and, (4) the overall supply chain tendency for the intensification of the cost price squeeze on the farming and land based populations as a result of their increasing reliance, both upon upstream suppliers of external inputs, and downstream buyers of farm gate products (especially the corporate retailers).

The result of these trends is important in the context of defining the more contemporary and increasingly contested notion of sustainable agriculture, for two related reasons. First, the profound implementation of the agri industrial model has tended to distinguish with 'more clarity what is and is not sustainable'; and second, it has acted to widen and encourage the contested vector of what constitutes sustainable forms of agriculture as an 'oppositional concept', as well as a concept in its own right. Sustainable agriculture debates have thus come to the fore and their political and geographical vector has both broadened and diversified into different strands of both agricultural practice (e.g., organics, fair trade, integrated farm management, ethical farming, and agroecology); and alternative agri food supplychain geographies (including relocalized chains, farmers markets, organic box schemes, and slow food circuits). It is important to recognize that these movements have been given extra vibrancy because of 'both' the longevity and continuous crisis tendencies inherent in the agriindustrial model.

One recent example of this has surrounded the highly contested introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops into global food supply chains. Introduced as the latest more 'sustainable' 'panacea' for the productivist–intensive system with regard to reducing costs of production, as well as removing some of the threats of pests and diseases, it has acted also to fuel the alternative sector, creating real boundary disputes between rival 'sustainable systems'. Here sustainable agriculture also becomes liable to various linguistic appropriations and regulatory pressures which either attempt to continue to deny its existence, or where it becomes more accepted and entrenched, to attempt to 'conventionalize' and dilute its central tenets. Increasing tensions have thus grown between the adherence to the basic principles of sustainable agriculture and serious attempts to dilute and generalize its very ontology. This 'battleground' is seen, for instance, in the agriculturally productive state of California, where growing consumer and producer demands have led to innovative and significant growth in a whole vector of sustainable agricultural developments (not least organics) since the 1980s. At the same time, many of these more successful initiatives potentially fall victim to economic and regulatory pressures to conventionalize and dilute their founding principles.

At the same time as sustainable agriculture debates are becoming more vibrant and promoted (both by different groups of consumers, environmentalists, as well as producers), we also see new challenges and devaluation attempts to its overarching principles, as outlined in the first section of this article. The second part of this article will outline two related conceptual and methodological avenues of research and conceptual development which have been attempting to provide and to situate sustainable agriculture within a more robust and conceptually distinctive set of parameters. First, these surround agroecological and ecological modernization debates; and second, more specific to the rural development domain, concern the development of what some scholars term the 'new rural development paradigm'.