Schools of Thought & Agricultural Sustainability

Authored by: Samantha Clark, Logan Thompson Ph.D., and Kim Stackhouse-Lawson Ph.D.

Sustainability is a complex topic, and as such, stakeholders often have different priorities and solutions due to the schools of thought in which they fall. There are three main ‘schools of thinking’ that prioritize different values: food security focus, stewardship focus, and society focus (Kebreab, 2013).

Food Security

The school of thought “Food Security” prioritizes improving agriculture and agricultural productivity to meet the increasing demands of food for our growing population. Stakeholders in this school of thought believe that meeting food demand is so important that some (possibly negative) consequences are worth it. Therefore, it is agriculture’s purpose to provide food and meet the needs of the population, and if deterioration of the environment happens it can, in some situations, be a necessary sacrifice.


The school of thought “Stewardship” prioritizes the wellbeing of the environment. Stakeholders in this school of thought believe that humanity must care for the environment and maintain it before agriculture can be sustainable. Therefore, environmental resources should not be depleted or damaged to achieve food security or profit.


The school of thought “Society” prioritizes preservation of natural resources and rural cultures, and promotes self-reliance. Stakeholders in this school of thought believe that agriculture is embedded in a larger system of society, and sustainable agriculture requires an interactive and integrated society. Therefore, society and agriculture support each other, and provide each other with services and goods.

Stakeholders from each of the schools of thought should work together, to develop robust sustainability interventions by utilizing a balanced systems thinking approach. This approach is necessary as it has the potential for achieving sustainability goals without sacrificing (and ideally improving) land, air, and water quality, water use, food security and access, animal health and well-being, worker safety and satisfaction, impacts on public health, racial and gender equality, and value chain profitability. Sustainability is a balance of many factors and having a balanced group of stakeholders with different views is important.


Kebreab, E. 2013. Sustainable Animal Agriculture. CABI.