Integrating Sustainable Agriculture into the Classroom

By Williams, David | The Agricultural Education Magazine, March/April 2001 | Go to article overview

Integrating Sustainable Agriculture into the Classroom


Williams, David, The Agricultural Education Magazine


GENERAL ARTICLE

Advocates of sustainable agriculture visualize an agricultural industry that is economically sound, environmentally protective, and socially acceptable. In the past, an agricultural practice was frequently accepted or rejected by asking the question, Is it economically sound? A "yes" answer provided strong support for adoption, whereas a "no" answer supported rejection. But now there is a growing awareness that agricultural systems must work within more responsible boundaries and respond not only to economic criteria but also to environmental and social concerns.

Historically, economic principles have been integrated into the agricultural education curriculum to a greater extent than have environmental and social aspects. Concurrent integration of economic, environmental, and social factors into the agricultural education curriculum encourages a multidisciplinary approach to learning in and about agriculture that parallels emerging developments in agriculture.

Dimensions

Sustainable agriculture can be visualized as overlapping economic, environmental, and social dimensions. The economic dimension is concerned with profitability, giving special attention to supply-demand balance, global competitiveness, government policies regarding price supports for farm commodities, and technology. Shifts in food consumption relating to the diet and health of consumers, food quality and safety, and marketing of agricultural products also are addressed (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, 1988).

The environmental dimension of sustainable agriculture is embedded in the fact that natural resources, along with science and technology, serve as a base for the agricultural industry (Stansbury and Coulter, 1986). The United States has a strong natural resources base, but new technologies and sound conservation practices are needed to extend its viability.

From a social perspective, the desired outcomes of sustainable agriculture include providing a safe, abundant, and nutritious food supply at a reasonable cost while preserving the wholesomeness of our rural heritage. The impact on society and not just on the farmer, consumer, or agency immediately affected is among the desired outcomes. For example, application of pesticides significantly benefits producers and consumers in many instances, but residues from pesticides may cause health concerns.

Basic to these three dimensions of sustainable agriculture are sound agronomic principles; issues related to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste management; integrated pest management; and issues related to biotechnology. Precision agriculture is complementary to sustainable agriculture in that both use a systems or interdisciplinary approach to decision-making.

The central concept of sustainable agriculture is to bring about an expanded way of thinking and decision-making in the agricultural industry. The following are among the beliefs paramount in this endeavor:

* Science and technology are the base of the food and fiber industry.

* Natural resources are critical to the food and fiber industry.

* Decision-making is based on economic, environmental, and social factors.

* Food and fiber can be produced more responsibly.

* Application of sound agronomic principles is crucial.

* Technologies are becoming more integrated and multifunctional.

* Changes in agriculture impact both rural and urban communities.

* The agricultural industry is globally interdependent.

* The public monitors the environmental and social impacts of agriculture.

Curriculum Enhancement

The beliefs regarding sustainable agriculture listed in the previous section should be examined and, if agreed on by local stakeholders, infused into the program philosophy. Philosophy serves as a screen to select subject matter (what to learn) and student learning activities (how to learn) and supports the development of learning partnerships (with whom to learn).

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