Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation Tillage: Managing the Contradictions

By Hall, Alan | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Agriculture and Conservation Tillage: Managing the Contradictions


Hall, Alan, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


Since the early 1980s, increasing emphasis has been placed on the need for environmentally-oriented approaches to farming (Advisory Panel on Food Security, 1987; Gertler, 1992; Maynes, 1991; Surgeoner and Roberts, 1993). At the same time, agricultural production and market systems have also been undergoing substantial restructuring in the context of both increasing globalization and persistent over-production and farm profitability crises (Goodman and Redclift, 1991; Phillips, 1991). In this historical context, conventional agriculture has come under considerable criticism from within and outside the agricultural community, leading many to argue that the existing system needs to be restructured toward a more "sustainable" agricultural model (Manning, 1986; Beus and Dunlap, 1990).

Within rural sociology, sustainable agriculture is often understood as a "competing paradigm" which challenges conventional agriculture on environmental, economic and ideological grounds (e.g. Beus, 1995). As such, much of the sociological research on sustainability has been focused on understanding the characteristics which distinguish conventional and alternative farmers, and the conditions which constrain or encourage the development of alternative practices and ways of thinking among farmers and agriculture more generally. For example, researchers have examined a variety of farmer and farm attributes such as age, education, orientation to risk, perception of environmental problems, farm size, and profitability (Allen and Bernhardt, 1995; McNairn and Mitchell, 1991; Saltiel, Bauder and Palakovich, 1994). The impact of agricultural markets and prices and state policies, programs and services have also been examined extensively (Macrae, Henning and Hill, 1993; Wimberly, 1993).

While often recognizing that there are corporate and state interests in resisting many aspects of "sustainable agriculture," analysts have largely ignored the ways in which the concept of sustainable agriculture has itself been adopted and transformed within the discourses of official state policy, agribusiness corporations and farmer organizations (Macrae, Henning and Hill, 1993). What is particularly significant about these official discourses is that they convey the idea that there is no conflict over the shift to sustainable agriculture. This notion of a conflict-free process of change in agriculture is often conveyed through claims that conventional agricultural production and management practices are changing largely on their own accord to simultaneously meet both environmental and economic challenges (Canada, Standing Committee on Agriculture, 1991:30; AGCare, 1992:4; Ontario Roundtable on Environment and Economy, 1992).(1) As a provincial government Roundtable observed in its report on Agriculture:

The goal of sustainable development has always been shared by members of our agricultural community. . . . However, it has come as a bit of a surprise to many that our daily activities can become both more environmentally sensitive and more economically viable . . . the economy and the environment are not eternal enemies, but in fact, natural allies (Ontario Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, 1991).

A Federal Standing Legislative Committee on Agriculture also praised recent developments in its report on the state of sustainable agriculture, concluding that: "this dual objective, to rationalize production and to improve the environment, is what sustainable agriculture is all about" (Canada, Standing Committee on Agriculture, 1992: 30).

In support of the claim that agriculture is becoming sustainable in this way, a variety of technical innovations, government programs, and legislative actions are cited as illustrating the shift from "conventional" to "sustainable" agriculture (Canada, Standing Committee on Agriculture, 1991). Within this process, some alternative ideas and practices are privileged over others, both in terms of the financial resources made available to farmers and in the production and dissemination of knowledge concerning the different options. …

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