There are various definitions of sustainable farming but all seem to have in common three basic elements that need to be considered and they are environmental protection, social responsibility and economic viability.
Farming on any scale from the small family holding to the large “agribusiness” is a business so arguably for the farmer wanting to practise sustainable agriculture the most important element to get right is therefore ensuring that the farm is economically viable and can provide an adequate living for all those involved.
The costs of food production include seed, fertiliser, pesticide, fuel and haulage costs as well as land prices should the farmer wish to expand and currently in the UK arable land prices have reached a record high, particularly in East Anglia, while land used for livestock sells at less than half the price of arable.
A surge in commodity prices for basics like grain and in the demand for staples like wheat, as well as the competition for land to grow biofuels, explains the surge in arable land price and also illustrates the kinds of dilemmas and pressures farmers face.
The situation becomes even more complex when the other two issues, of social responsibility and environmental protection are included in the sustainability equation.
Any business has to be responsive to social and consumer pressure if it wants to be successful and there is evidence that consumers, and therefore the large retail chains, are looking for fresh, natural fruit, vegetables and grain as well as animal products that are free from pesticides and other chemical residues.
This demand also plays into the environmental element of sustainable farming and is having an impact on farming methods across the UK and Europe.
Most importantly there is a need to protect the natural resource base on which agriculture depends: and in some locations increased production has led serious concerns about soil erosion, falling soil organic matter levels, rising salinity and heavy metal contamination.
Equally important is reducing air, soil and water pollution from pesticide residues and from fertiliser and livestock effluent run-offs. Here too, legislation is forcing major changes in farming practices across Europe.
While the most purist method of environmental protection is organic farming it is possible to achieve sustainable farming using the products being researched and developed by biopesticides developers, who are teaming up with major producers to provide low-chemical agricultural products derived from natural sources. These products have a significant role in helping to achieve these goals of environmental protection.
Already there is a range of biopesticides, biofungicides and yield enhancers either on the market or in the process of being trialled, registered and licensed for use.
Because regulation is not yet harmonised even across Europe, it is a slow process but the potential for providing at least some of the tools farmers need to farm sustainably is there.
Farming sustainably requires all three elements to be practised in harmony, in a way that can provide the farmer with an acceptable income from the work, the consumer with the healthy produce they increasingly ask for and in a way that protects, preserves and improves the environment on which all this depends.