Ecology Initiative of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa

British ecologist lays out blueprint for influencing public policy to favor sustainable ag

Jules Pretty, author, ag scholar, and aggressive proponent of a new way to farm, argues that if we hope to change anything, we must make clear to policy makers the steep costs of conventional ag while documenting the social and environmental benefits of sustainable production.

By Darcy Maulsby

Who is
Jules Pretty?

Pretty, an internationally known British scholar and director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex (UK), is best known for his comprehensive study of more than 200 sustainable farming projects on 70 million acres in 52 countries. His analysis showed that the use of sustainable agriculture practices can lead to substantial increases in production -perhaps as much as 150 percent for some root crops. He has written more than 150 scholarly papers and eight books. The most recent are Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature and Guide to a Green Planet.

Additional work has embraced such issues as: suggesting a five-point strategy for a national plan for reconstruction of Britain's farm industry; outlining measures to operationalize "sustainability"; identifying point-counterpoint arguments for the benefits and drawbacks of local food systems, and presenting the case for open citizens juries as a means of linking sustainability and deliberative democracy.

Pretty also serves as deputy-chair of Great Britain's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE).

He is a frequent speaker and contributor to media reports, and has worked with the BBC on several nationally-broadcast programs. A member of the Institute of Biology and British Agricultural History Society, he edits the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.

Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature is published by Earthscan, widely recognized as the UK's leading publisher of books on environment and sustainable development. The above link takes you to a description of Pretty’s book on the Earthscan web site.

November 7, 2003: A British ecologist who has studied hundreds of sustainable farming systems worldwide is challenging Americans to judge agricultural success by more than just productivity and cheap commodities.

“Modern farming looks good because it measures its own success narrowly, but it ignores costly side effects,” said Jules Pretty, director of the Centre for the Environment and Society at the University of Essex ( “We should be asking the fundamental question, ‘What is farming for?’ Of course it’s to produce food, but it’s more than that.”

Pretty visited Iowa recently as a guest of the Ecology Initiative of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture ( He noted that only three countries-- Switzerland, Cuba and Bhutan--have developed explicit national policies for sustainable agriculture. “I’ve never met anyone who says they don’t support sustainable agriculture, but this is lamentable that only three nations have made these fundamental changes.”

A big part of the problem is the prevailing myth, Pretty said. “Too many people say that being nice to the environment is nice in theory, but you can’t do that and increase productivity in agriculture.”

Finding answers around the globe

To investigate this myth, University of Essex researchers studied 208 sustainable agriculture projects and initiatives in Africa, Asia, Latin America and other regions involving nearly nine million farmers.

“We’ve seen promising signs of progress, and we’ve seen innovations in sustainability coming from all over the world,” Pretty said.

Here are some examples:

  • In Indonesia and other parts of Asia, “farmer field schools” are turning fields into outdoor classrooms. Farmers are learning new ways to identify and control insect pests. In Vietnam, many farmers have stopped farming without pesticides, Pretty said.
  • In India, groups of women have worked together to turn eroded, barren land into productive fields once again.
  • In Kenya, farmers have organized in groups to manage soil and water conservation more effectively. “This has been a very successful program,” Pretty added.
  • In the United States, programs like USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) offer a tremendous number of success stories, Pretty said.

So how do you make even more progress towards sustainability? By making connections, Pretty said. These include:

  1. Substituting management skills and knowledge for costly inputs
  2. Building on-farm biodiversity and soil health
  3. Organizing in groups
  4. Adding value to commodities
  5. Selling direct to consumers

“We need to reestablish the connections to the land, to food and systems of production, and between producers and consumers,” Pretty said. “These are pretty mundane ideas, but we need to remember that they work.”

Francis Thicke, an organic, grass-based dairy producer from Fairfield, Iowa, who attended the event at the Leopold Center, said he agrees with Pretty.

“Jules’ message about the interconnectedness of ecology and farming really hit home with me. I try to model my farm after the ecology of nature, because I believe you can’t be sustainable if you can’t connect the whole system together.”

Changing public policy

Most of the sustainability success stories around the world have developed in spite of public policy, rather than because of it.

Still, Pretty says he’s encouraged that public policy is starting to shift in new directions. “The concept is taking hold that spending public money should do the most public good. It’s not just to give subsidies.”

To make this shift, policy makers and the public need to start thinking more about the positive and negative side effects that agriculture produces.

“We need a full-cost accounting of our agricultural systems. Farming can offer biodiversity, landscape aesthetics, clean water, flood protection, carbon sequestration, a rural economy and community cohesion. But it can also contribute to water pollution, a loss of biodiversity, foodborne illnesses, and gaseous emissions.”

Pretty said this raises two important questions:

  1. how much are the positive side effects worth to farmers and rural communities, and
  2. how much do the negative ones cost the rest of society?

“In the UK, it has been estimated that the negative externalities associated with agriculture cost consumers the equivalent of nearly $2.6 billion per year. These costs come in the form of pesticide removal from water, the loss of biodiversity, bacterial outbreaks in food, antibiotic resistance, the effects of greenhouse gasses on climate, and more. In effect, this is a hidden subsidy from the public to polluters.”

So what does this mean for farmers in other countries? When dealing with policymakers, there are two keys, Pretty says:

  • Provide clear evidence that there’s a problem. “Think of the externalities numbers we used in the UK. They were controversial numbers, but they’ve opened a lot of eyes,” Pretty said.
  • Share the success stories of sustainable agriculture. “We need to compile a strong evidence base that this system works,” Pretty said.

Understanding the food ethic

Farmers also need to build constructive relationships with policy makers, consumers, and others.

“We need to try to find ‘both/and’ solutions, not ‘either/or’ solutions,” Pretty said. “We need to create more spaces in agriculture where alternative, sustainable systems can crop up. But if you think we need a complete revolution in agriculture, you won’t get far.”

Part of making this transition involves a land and food ethic. “The food we eat is the most political decision we make every day,” Pretty said. “Each time we buy food, you buy the agricultural production system at the other end. These choices make a difference to nature and to communities.”

In the next decade, Pretty hopes that perhaps 30 to 40 countries might start working toward sustainability and “at least try to do the right things.” In closing, he quoted Peter Senge, author of the book “The Fifth Discipline.”

“When things are going poorly, we blame the situation on incompetent leaders, thereby avoiding any personal responsibility. Through all of this, we totally miss the bigger question, ‘what are we, collectively, able to create?’”