Introduction - What is sustainable farming?

  • “Sustainability” became a popular buzzword in the 1990s, and the concept was driven by the Resource Management Act (RMA) of 1991.
  • A major aim of the RMA (Section 5) is to promote sustainable management of our natural and physical resources for future generations. Air, water, and soil are covered in this category.
  • Breaches of the RMA are a criminal rather than a civil defence and fines go from $2200 to $20,000.
  • Sustainable farming is about “protecting the environment for future generations”, so everyone who operates in that environment (eg. farmers) carries responsibilities to comply with the act.
  • Sustainable “management” is not sustainable “development”.
  • In sustainable management, the needs of all members of society must be met, and not just those who live in the countryside.
  • Those who farm the land have to ensure that all “development’ is sustainable over time in (a) a social, (b) an economic, and (c) an environmental sense.
  • Farmers have to avoid, remedy or mitigate any adverse effects of their activities on the environment.

What would a sustainable farm look like?

  • A series of farmers’ workshops in the Waikato in the late 1990s came up with these components of a sustainable farm:
    • Contented farm animals
    • Efficient farm animals
    • Clean water
    • Productive vegetation
    • Unrestricted market access for the produce
    • Farmer and family health
    • Adequate rural and agricultural services
    • Control of feral pests
  • These are not in any priority order and reflect some farmers’ views on sustainability in the late 1990s.
  • The farmers stressed that sustainable farming must be profitable. Otherwise, there would be no farming business to sustain.
  • They may seem a mixed bag of issues, and there are plenty of others that could be included – for example, the protection of high-quality soils. But at least it’s a start to understand and accepting the concept of sustainability and what it means in practice.


  • Anyone who owns or manages land must accept the full responsibility of “stewardship”.
  • The dictionary defines a steward as “a person entrusted with the management of another person’s property”.
  • So stewardship must be a major farming objective – that of trust in the care of the land.
  • It’s the old concept of farming the land to leave it richer than when you started.
  • So with all the current concerns about the environment and global warming, those who farm have to be seen to be stewards who ensure farming in all its aspects is sustainable.