IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

Is it possible to increase the sustainability of arable and ruminant agriculture by reducing inputs?


  • Glendining, M.J.
  • Dailey, A.G.
  • Williams, A.G.
  • Evert, F.K. van
  • Goulding, K.W.T.
  • Whitmore, A.P.


Until recently, agricultural production was optimised almost exclusively for profit but now farming is under pressure to meet environmental targets. A method is presented and applied for optimising the sustainability of agricultural production systems in terms of both economics and the environment. Components of the agricultural production chain are analysed using environmental life-cycle assessment (LCA) and a financial value attributed to the resources consumed and burden imposed on the environment by agriculture, as well as to the products. The sum of the outputs is weighed against the inputs and the system considered sustainable if the value of the outputs exceeds those of the inputs. If this ratio is plotted against the sum of inputs for all levels of input, a diminishing returns curve should result and the optimum level of sustainability is located at the maximum of the curve. Data were taken from standard economic almanacs and from published LCA reports on the extent of consumption and environmental burdens resulting from farming in the UK. Land-use is valued using the concept of ecosystem services. Our analysis suggests that agricultural systems are sustainable at rates of production close to current levels practiced in the UK. Extensification of farming, which is thought to favour non-food ecosystem services, requires more land to produce the same amount of food. The loss of ecosystem services hitherto provided by natural land brought into production is greater than that which can be provided by land now under extensive farming. This loss of ecosystem service is large in comparison to the benefit of a reduction in emission of nutrients and pesticides. However, food production is essential, so the coupling of subsidies that represent a relatively large component of the economic output in EU farming, with measures to reduce pollution are well-aimed. Measures to ensure that as little extra land is brought into production as possible or that marginal land is allowed to revert to nature would seem to be equally well-aimed, even if this required more intensive use of productive areas. We conclude that current arable farming in the EU is sustainable with either realistic prices for products or some degree of subsidy and that productivity per unit area of land and greenhouse gas emission (subsuming primary energy consumption) are the most important pressures on the sustainability of farming.

Suggested Citation

  • Glendining, M.J. & Dailey, A.G. & Williams, A.G. & Evert, F.K. van & Goulding, K.W.T. & Whitmore, A.P., 2009. "Is it possible to increase the sustainability of arable and ruminant agriculture by reducing inputs?," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 99(2-3), pages 117-125, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:agisys:v:99:y:2009:i:2-3:p:117-125

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: Full text for ScienceDirect subscribers only

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to search for a different version of it.

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Ehui, Simeon K. & Spencer, Dunstan S.C., 1992. "A General Approach for Evaluating the Economic Viability of Sustainability of Tropical Cropping Systems," Occasional Paper Series No. 6 197740, International Association of Agricultural Economists.
    2. Pretty, J. N. & Brett, C. & Gee, D. & Hine, R. E. & Mason, C. F. & Morison, J. I. L. & Raven, H. & Rayment, M. D. & van der Bijl, G., 2000. "An assessment of the total external costs of UK agriculture," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 65(2), pages 113-136, August.
    3. Pretty, J.N. & Ball, A.S. & Lang, T. & Morison, J.I.L., 2005. "Farm costs and food miles: An assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 30(1), pages 1-19, February.
    4. Lien, Gudbrand & Brian Hardaker, J. & Flaten, Ola, 2007. "Risk and economic sustainability of crop farming systems," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 94(2), pages 541-552, May.
    5. Espinosa, A. & Harnden, R. & Walker, J., 2008. "A complexity approach to sustainability - Stafford Beer revisited," European Journal of Operational Research, Elsevier, vol. 187(2), pages 636-651, June.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Gaitán-Cremaschi, Daniel & Kamali, Farahnaz Pashaei & van Evert, Frits K. & Meuwissen, Miranda P.M. & Oude Lansink, Alfons G.J.M., 2015. "Benchmarking the sustainability performance of the Brazilian non-GM and GM soybean meal chains: An indicator-based approach," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 55(C), pages 22-32.
    2. Patrizia Schwegler, 2015. "Economic valuation of environmental costs of soil erosion and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services caused by food wastage," Journal of Socio-Economics in Agriculture (Until 2015: Yearbook of Socioeconomics in Agriculture), Swiss Society for Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, vol. 8(2).
    3. Christof Gubler, 2014. "Potential des Anbaus und Absatzmo glichkeiten der Walnuss in der Schweiz," Journal of Socio-Economics in Agriculture (Until 2015: Yearbook of Socioeconomics in Agriculture), Swiss Society for Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, vol. 7(1).
    4. Rask, Kolleen J. & Rask, Norman, 2011. "Economic development and food production-consumption balance: A growing global challenge," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 36(2), pages 186-196, April.
    5. Andrew P. Whitmore & Keith W. T. Goulding & Margaret J. Glendining & A. Gordon Dailey & Kevin Coleman & David S. Powlson, 2012. "Nutrient Management in Support of Environmental and Agricultural Sustainability," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 4(10), pages 1-12, October.


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:eee:agisys:v:99:y:2009:i:2-3:p:117-125. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Dana Niculescu). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.