SEA Working Paper 97/01

Sustainable Agriculture: A Question of

Ecology, Equity, Economic Efficiency or Expedience?

David J. Pannell and Steven Schilizzi

Agricultural and Resource Economics, The University of Western Australia, Nedlands 6907


Sustainability is the paradigm of our time, yet its use as a guide to planning or decision making is clouded by its ambiguity and the multiplicity of definitions in use. In this paper we address the issue of how best to deal with the multi-faceted nature of sustainability. We outline each of the facets of sustainability which have been discussed in the literature, but suggest that most of them boil down to three basic concepts: environmental stability, intergenerational equity and economic efficiency. Nevertheless it remains difficult to link the concept to practical actions and decisions. We argue that a multiple criteria decision making approach is the best solution to this problem. This is consistent with the use of "sustainability indicators", but such indicators need to be selected carefully to be relevant to the essential elements of sustainability.


The definition of sustainable agriculture is elusive, perhaps even unattainable. For example, Pezzey (1992) outlined a multitude of definitions of sustainability concepts proposed in the literature. Despite this ambiguity, the concept of sustainable agriculture clearly has enormous appeal and is increasingly affecting government policies. It is discussed and legislated for as if it was a well-defined and measurable concept. Since it is not, much of the discussion is marked by confusion, inconsistency and lack of rigour.

In this paper we consider the use of the concept of sustainability as a guide to practical decision making in agriculture, both on and off farm. We conclude that sustainability is not in itself a useful criterion for planning or decision making in agriculture. However it is useful as an emblem for other more clear and rigorous criteria which capture the issues usually associated with sustainability. Thus the continued use of the term "sustainable agriculture" is useful as an expedient, but decision making should be based on clear and measurable definitions of its important constituent elements, as well as on other objectives.

In reaching this conclusion, we proceed as follows. In the next section, the diverse elements present in various definitions of sustainability are examined. Then we consider sustainability as a decision criterion or objective in agriculture. The problems of using the traditional definitions of sustainability for decision making are discussed, leading to discussion of the measurement of sustainability in agriculture. We conclude with a proposal for a practical solution to the problem of how to consider sustainability in decision making.


"These days, just about everyone is on the sustainability bandwagon, and sustainability has come to mean all things to all riders on this bandwagon!" (Graham-Tomasi, 1991, p84). The number and diversity of conditions which have at various times been claimed to be necessary for agriculture to be sustainable is astounding. It includes many aspects which by any reasonable interpretation, seem remote from sustainability as a concept related to the continuity or stability of something. For example, Dunlap et al. (1992) include among their components of sustainable agriculture: "Revitalize rural areas", "Decrease complexity of food processing and distribution system", and "Improve the health and well-being of rural people". While recognising these components and numerous others as relevant topics for public debate and government policy, we see them as related to other social objectives, such as social welfare, rather than sustainability of agriculture.

In the following sections, we discuss the elements of sustainability within three categories: ecology, ethics and economics. These categories correspond to the essential core elements of sustainability which, we argue, should be considered in decision making. The (Australian) Resources Assessment Commission (1992) also identified these as the essential core elements within the sphere of "sustainability".

2.1 Extrinsic and Intrinsic Values of the Environment

Discussions of the value to be attributed to the preservation of a natural system invoke two distinct sources of value: extrinsic and intrinsic values. Extrinsic value arises from fact that the environment increases the satisfaction or utility of humans. In this utilitarian philosophy, nature has value insofar as it is useful or agreeable to humans. This encompasses the concept of existence value, whereby humans derive satisfaction from knowledge of the existence of a species, a natural habitat, or a landscape. It also includes option value, whereby the potential for presently low-value resources to become higher valued in future is considered.

The intrinsic value of a natural system exists irrespective of its usefulness or amenity to humans. This view explicitly grants rights to exist to species other than humans, or the environment as a whole. The intrinsic value approach may thus require decision makers to make decisions knowingly against their own present or future interests.

These two values are fundamentally different. A practical problem is what weight to give to each. Different decision makers inevitably apply their own subjective weightings.

2.2 Equity Across Generations

A notion of intergenerational equity or fairness is central to many sustainability concerns. Toman (1994) notes that, although there is an enormous literature, spanning two millennia, on concepts of distributive justice including fairness across generations, there is not yet one theory or conception that commands wide intellectual support. The nearest to this is probably Rawls’ (1972) Theory of Justice and the body of work by others that this provoked, but even here, the prospect of practical application to issues of sustainability seems remote. Sen (1992) argued that all contributions on the ethics of social arrangement have argued for or assumed equality of something, be it equal income, equal opportunity, equal welfare, equal rights, or whatever else. "To see the battle as one between those ‘in favour of’ and those ‘against’ equality (as the problem is often posed in the literature) is to miss something central to the subject." (Sen, 199, p. ix). The central question is, equality of what?

There are striking parallels here to the sustainability debate. To the extent that sustainability is about intergenerational equity (and we believe that it is substantially so), all of the above observations apply to it. Even those who view sustainability primarily as an issue of ecology or economic efficiency are left with a version of Sen’s central question: sustainability of what?

2.3 Economic Efficiency

Economic sustainability in agriculture may refer to maintaining the levels of any of the following, to name but a few of the possibilities: aggregate farmer income, the number of farmers, land productivity, aggregate national welfare. Again, the concept begs the question: sustainability of what? We propose that, to the extent that the goal is economic efficiency, sustainability is not relevant. The most efficient plan for society may or may not be sustainable in the sense of being able to be continued indefinitely. This is not to say that efficiency should be society’s sole goal. If we value environmental integrity for its intrinsic value, or if we value intergenerational equity, sustainability of something probably is of concern to us. However decision makers are almost certainly interested in the trade-off between these objectives (which are probably consistent with sustainability) and economic efficiency (which probably is not).

The fact that efficiency might conflict with sustainability does not in itself, invalidate efficiency as an objective. That would be to place environmental integrity and intergenerational equity on a pedestal, to be considered to the exclusion of an major set of contemporary concerns. Some may see this as appropriate, but most will not. For example, enhancing economic efficiency may create the potential to increase the standard of living of as many people as possible. It would seem ethically indefensible to consider issues of intra-generational welfare (such as the poor nutrition and health suffered in much of the world) as being less important than the welfare of future generations.

Furthermore, efficiency might enhance the environment. The creation of current wealth seems to be a prerequisite for societies to be willing to invest in environmental protection.

Some economists have argued that sustainability is a problem only to the extent that it arises from distorted prices due to externalities (e.g. Rose, 1992). This is much too narrow a view, reducing sustainability to a problem of economic efficiency foregone due to market failure. It is true that some important issues are characterised by external costs, including the important example of dryland salinity within a catchment arising from water movement across property boundaries. The classic solution proposed by economists would be "internalisation" of the externality through a process involving the creation and enforcement of property rights. An extreme advocate of the Coasian view would even argue that the distribution of these rights among the farmers is irrelevant as it has little or no impact on the aggregate final productivity of the land. This is a naive view ethically, politically and socially. In reality, the social and political heat in such a case is at least as much to do with the perceived injustice of imposing costs on others as with the loss of economic efficiency. In an extreme case, even with all externalities internalised, it may be economically efficient to exploit a resource to the point of collapse or exhaustion. However this probably conflicts with an objective of maintaining intergenerational equity which is widely perceived to be at the core of many environmental and sustainability-related concerns (e.g. Toman, 1994).

The other reason why sustainability cannot be reduced to a matter of externalities is that not all of the issues generally considered to fall within the realm of agricultural sustainability are associated with externalities. In particular we should draw a distinction between those issues which are mainly contained within individual farm boundaries and those with a public dimension. In the former group might be soil acidification, soil structure decline and loss of soil fertility. Public problems would include salinisation of waterways as a result of clearing for agriculture, and adverse impacts of agriculture on native flora and fauna. Most problems include both public and private elements to some extent. If the private element dominates and the risk of irreversible damage is sufficiently low, it is likely that the sole contribution of government should be the provision of information about the problem, or perhaps research and development for new technology to deal with it. Government action to mandate "sustainable" farming practices would undoubtedly conflict with the farmer’s judgement about what is in his or her own best interests. It seems unwise to presume that a government’s judgement on such a matter could be better than that of a well-informed farmer. From an ethical point of view, if a farmer’s management has no negative impacts on others, interference to change that management appears an untenable infringement of the farmer’s individual rights.

On the other hand, where farm management has impacts off that farm, an ethical and economic case can often be made for more direct influence being wielded on the farmer, either through legal constraints or manipulation of economic incentives (e.g. through taxes or subsidies).

2.4 Essential Elements of Sustainability

We have excluded from this discussion a number of issues often associated with the sustainability concept but which are more appropriately considered to be legitimate objectives independent from sustainability. We propose that even within the sustainability banner, there are several quite separate issues which cannot be combined into a simple unity, but which each may need to be considered in decision making for policy purposes.

"For their own sake" implies considering the issue outside the normal anthropocentric framework, instilling non-human life forms with rights, if not as individuals then at least as species. This is not so much a matter of ecology as of ethics. While not promoting this view ourselves, we include it here in recognition that it is heartfelt by many individuals (e.g. those in the "deep ecology" movement), so that policy makers may wish to give it some non-zero weight. It is quite distinct from the objective of protecting natural ecosystems to enhance the long-term best interests of humanity. This would fall within the two anthropocentric categories (b) and/or (c).

Intergenerational equity seems to us to be the really core issue of the three. Unfortunately, it is also by far the most difficult to operationalise to the point where it can be useful in decision making. The next section covers the practical application of sustainability concepts to decision making, and the problems discussed there apply particularly to this aspect.

Some issues of efficient resource use are not really about "sustainability" in the sense of maintaining or preserving something indefinitely. Others clearly are, especially those of efficient use of renewable resources over time. Even for these, it may actually be inefficient to sustain a resource indefinitely, but such an outcome would need to be evaluated in terms of its impact on the other two categories. On the other hand, efficiency of resource use increases human wealth which may be invested in protection of the environment.

Property rights are usually emphasised in discussions about economic efficiency and market failure. However it is interesting to note that they feature in the causes of problems in all three categories. In case (a), the problem arises because the rights to decision making rest solely with (or have been taken by) humans, infringing possible rights of non-humans. In case (b), the rights to make decisions are available only to current (and to some extent, past) generations, so that future generations may not adequately be considered. In case (c), the absence or weakness of property right is well known to be a cause of lost economic efficiency through the resulting externalities and public goods.

There are obviously also other objectives to be considered, including issues of intra-generational equity (e.g., unemployment), social welfare (health), national pride, spiritual well-being and so on. The three sustainability objectives must be traded off against each other and against these other objectives.


3.1 Sustainability as an Objective

From the foregoing discussion, it is clear that the problems with attempting to use sustainability as a guide to decision making are several and complex.

Sustainability of what? This is a core unresolved question which is absolutely parallel to the question which Sen (1992) proposes as being central in the analysis and assessment of equality: equality of what? It is in the answers to these questions that the widest disagreements occur in both the sustainability and equality debates.

Consistency between scales. The most logically defensible definitions relate to sustainability over a large scale: a state, nation or even the globe. However the definitions employed in actual decision making for agricultural policies or research are often at an extremely small scale, such as the individual paddock. There seems no practical way to tell whether a farming practice which is apparently unsustainable by some local criterion is inconsistent with sustainability at the large scale. Graham-Tomasi (1991, pp. 83-84) emphasises that

by focussing on overall well-being as the object of sustainability, it is not necessary, and may even be counterproductive, to insist on the sustainability of every component sub-system. ... Many analysts have been excessively concerned about the sustainability of particular components of an overall system, while ignoring substitution possibilities among components.

He concluded that, "aggregation issues over time, space, and individuals has received woefully inadequate attention in much of the sustainability literature" (p.89).

Difficulty of measurement. Even if we could agree on the factors which are to be sustained, there remain considerable problems in measuring their sustainability. These are discussed further below, but we emphasise here that without a quantifiable measure of sustainability, attempts to achieve it are severely hampered.

Competing objectives. Even if these problems could be overcome, it is not possible to consider sustainability as the sole objective of society. From a purely practical point of view, there may be many practices and policies which satisfy any given definition of sustainability, so additional criteria are needed to select among them. For example, in a particular circumstance, use of either low or high fertilizer rates may be sustainable in the long run, in the sense that yields can be maintained indefinitely, although at different levels. Some other criteria (probably economic and/or environmental) must be used to choose between them. An additional reason for considering additional objectives is the simple fact that society has multiple objectives. As a society, we care about social and economic objectives independent of sustainability, and if only for political reasons, these will be considered. It may be argued that for ethical reasons, they should be so considered. Thirdly, whatever recommendations or policies are made, they must be compatible with local cultures as well as social and economic influences on behaviour if they are to be adopted in a sustainable fashion (Graham-Tomasi, 1991). Any practical means of introducing sustainability to decision processes must allow for consideration of other, potentially conflicting, objectives.

Uncertainty. Even at the farm level, there is considerable uncertainly about the impacts of different farm practices on the farm’s economic and physical resources in the long run. At the policy level, this uncertainty is compounded since any policy measure being considered depends for its impact on the behavioural response of farmers to the policy, a matter of further uncertainty.

3.2 Measuring Sustainability

The primary vehicle for measurement of sustainability is through the use of sustainability "indicators": quantifiable and measurable variables which are judged to be related to the sustainability of the system (e.g., Azar et al., 1996; Hamblin et al., 1993; Reuter and Walker, 1996). Such indicators suffer from all of the fundamental problems of the sustainability concept. It is unclear which indicators should ideally be used, and as a result there has been a proliferation of indicators proposed. These inevitably conflict with each other and there are no criteria or principles available for selecting among the many possible indicators or weighting them appropriately. It is not clear how they should be weighted against competing social or economic objectives.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for persisting with the search for suitable sustainability indicators:

  1. It is clear that there can be no single metric available to measure sustainability, if only because of its multi-faceted nature, as emphasised above. Indicators are clearly needed for at least each of the essential elements outlined in Section 2.
  2. Disagreement about which indicators should be used will certainly remain, but this can be dealt with by monitoring alternative indicators for the same aspect of sustainability.
  3. Sustainability indicators avoid the problem of explicitly making economic valuations of the various elements, leaving this to the subjective judgement of decision makers. While this may be viewed by some as a weakness, it does avoid widespread public, political and scientific scepticism about the validity of the currently available valuation techniques.
  4. The use of sustainability indicators is consistent with well-developed methods for mutiple-criteria decision making.

3.3 Expedience

There is great momentum behind the use of the term "sustainability" and its promotion as an objective of public policy or private action. It seems so great as to be unstoppable, despite the problems and weaknesses outlined here. It seems pointless to mount any sustained campaign of criticism with the aim of discouraging use and/or application of the term (e.g. as in Beckerman, 1996). Rather, our view is that even though undefined or ambiguous, "sustainability" is valuable as an emblem or banner which represents a broad range of related and important issues. Thus our continued use of the term is a matter of expedience. It is interesting that it has become common in the literature to side-step discussion of the definition of sustainability. Authors increasingly recognise the fruitlessness of pursuing any single definition.

Nevertheless if we agree that the underlying issues are important, we need to be able to evaluate a system’s sustainability. Our recommendation is that to do this, one should identify the particular distinct characteristics which are judged to be at the heart of sustainability and evaluate the system in terms of these. Our "essential elements" proposed earlier would be our suggestions for which characteristics to measure. These would be our guide to the selection of suitable "sustainability indicators". We recognise that considerable difficulty remains in the selection of specific indicators, especially for intergenerational equity, but at least we have identified the issues for which indicators are needed.

In suggesting the use of indicators, we would emphasise that the important issue for society is not what are the current trends in indicators, but what should be done about them. We recommend applying these indicators in a multiple-criterion decision making framework, bringing in other non-sustainability objectives for consideration (including those sometimes included inappropriately in the realm of sustainability). The answer depends on an all-things-considered assessment of the impacts of our actions on each of the objectives and what trade-offs we are willing to make between them. This is consistent with a sound ethical approach, as outlined by Elliot (1993) for example.


"Sustainability" is at once extremely important and practically useless. It consists of a set of concepts which are fundamentally different in nature. That is why there has been no success in attempt to identify THE definition of sustainability. There can be no satisfactory definition which is not multifaceted. This poses serious difficulties for the practical application of sustainability as an objective in real decision making. We have suggested here that these difficulties be addressed by focussing on the particular aspects of sustainability which the decision maker considers to be important, and presenting information about the trade offs between these aspects within a multiple criteria decision making framework.


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Dunlap, R.E., Beus, C.E., Howell, R.E., and Waud, J. (1992). What is sustainable agriculture? An empirical examination of faculty and farmer definitions. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 3: 5-39.

Elliot, R. (1993). Environmental ethics. In: P.Singer (ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Blackwell, Oxford.

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Pezzey, J. (1992). Sustainable Development Concepts: An Economic Analysis. World Bank Environment Paper No 2.: Washington D.C.

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Reuter, D.J., and Walker, J. (1996). Indicators of Catchment Health: A Technical Perspective. CSIRO: Melbourne.

Rose, R. (1992). Economics of a sustainable agriculture. In: N. Wallace (ed.), Natural Resource Management: An Economic Perspective. ABARE, Canberra.

Sen, A. (1992). Inequality Reexamined. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Toman, M.A. (1994). Economics and "sustainability": Balancing trade-offs and imperatives, Land Economics 70: 399-413.

Citation: Pannell, D.J. and Schilizzi, S. (1999). Sustainable agriculture: A question of ecology, ethics, economic efficiency or expedience? Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 13(4): 57-66. (SEA Working Paper 97/01, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Western Australia)

An earlier version of this paper: Pannell, D.J. and Schilizzi, S. (1997). Sustainable agriculture: A question of Ecology, Economics, Ethics or Expedience? Paper presented at the 41st Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Gold Coast, Queensland, Jan 22-24 1997.

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