Sustainable Agriculture: Learning from the Past and Strengthening Rural-Urban Interaction and Interconnectedness

June 10, 2012, 12:01 am
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Burial chamber of Sennedjem, depicting one of the earliest extant agricultural scenes. Source: Yorck Project

Since the emergence of early farming for some 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, traditional agriculture succeeded by the early twentieth century in providing food to a world population that had doubled eight times, from some sox million to around 1600 millions, and it created diverse agro-ecological and cultural systems throughout the world. This was possible because agriculture has developed in coevolution (mutual influences) with the surrounding ecological system, and later also with larger socioeconomic systems as the emerging towns and cities increasingly influenced, and were influenced by, agriculture. That is, survived techniques, methods, and crop varieties were characterized by long-term suitability. In contrast, modern industrial agriculture, which emerged in relation to fossil fuel utilization, comprises a large number of accumulated changes that have been adopted over a relatively short period of time, with scant attention given to their long-term impact on the ecological system and natural resources. This system has managed to double food production twice, but it also has significantly degraded and depleted the environment and natural resources. 

Agricultural industrialization and globalization shifted the coevolutionary processes far away from the rural-urban domain and into national and global levels. Local ecological constraints weakened by importing inputs from far away ecological systems and by shifting pollution to other systems and into the globe. Constraints from local socioeconomic systems minimized by decoupling food production and consumption and by national and higher level of agricultural policy and regulations. Presently and as far as industrial agriculture is dependant on non-renewable and imported natural resources and causes various agro-ecological problems it can hardly be sustainable. While a sustainable path of agricultural development might emerge by virtue of a collapse in the present global food system brought about by food, energy, economic, and/or ecological crises, it could also arise through conscious measures taken for the purpose of reducing the risk of such crises.

Swedish Agriculture since the Middle of the 19th Century

The traditional agricultural system in Sweden, which survived in its main features into the nineteenth century, was typically constituted around the village organization, arable land, meadows, and grazing lands. Swedish agriculture underwent extensive changes during the nineteenth century. A number of subsystems and forces are involved in the interaction between agriculture and the surrounding socioeconomic and ecological systems, each of which may affect other subsystems as well as the system as a whole. Such forces include; 1) population growth and increasing food demand, 2) increasing state involvement, 3) technological change, 4) industrialization and the expansion of the urban economy, 5) changes in relative prices, 6) the introduction of scientific knowledge; and 7) changes in the value system. These interactive and non-constant forces/subsystems have induced two radical transformations of agriculture.

The first transformation, which ended around 1930, was basically changing the traditional system of tilled land combined with meadow harvesting and village management to a system of cereal rotation with clover-enriched lea, stronger crop and animal integration, and individual farm management. The new system, which remains within the traditional framework of local resource flow and product consumption and was associated with strengthening rural-urban interaction and interconnectedness, was capable of producing much more food and ending the periodic hunger and emigration. Most of the produced food were processed and consumed within the local rural-urban domain and most of the expanding towns and cities influenced, and were influenced by, agriculture. The second transformation, which started around 1930, led to modern industrial farming characterized by increasing use of off-farm resources, producing food surpluses, weakening local coevolutionary processes and by various agro-ecological problems. Resource flows uncoupled from the surrounding ecological and socioeconomic systems and food consumption uncoupled from local food production.

Agricultural Development in the Four Quarters of the Twentieth Century 

The twentieth century began with about two-thirds of the Swedish population engaged in farming activities, cultivating about 3.4 million hectares of arable land. The size of what may be termed the rural underclass, such as crofters, agricultural workers, and servants was large. This group had a low or very low standard of living, and many voices were raised to address this problem. Furthermore, urban population grew fast and more agricultural related activities consolidated in nearby town or city. The socioeconomic system exerted strong pressure upon agriculture to increase food production and employ more people, while farmers themselves had become literate, managed their own farms, and had access to a chain of institutional arrangements for increasing production and productivity. The century ended with about 2 percent of the Swedish workforce engaged in food production, cultivating less than 3 million hectare arable land and producing enough food for the whole population.

Agricultural development during the four quarters of the twentieth century may be viewed as having passed through four distinct phases, namely, the appropriation of the new traditional system, the adoption of motorized technology, the use of chemicals and the inducement of restructuring, and the possible beginning of a sustainable development in agricultural system. Each phase may be viewed also as shifting the coevolutionary processes to a higher level. The changes in production and structure that took place during the century are related to the above seven forces that changed over time. Agricultural development during the first quarter of the twentieth century was an essentially appropriation of the agricultural system of crop rotation and individual farm management that evolved during the second half of the nineteenth century. On the basis of better utilization of local resources and rural-urban integration, labor, land, and animal productivity were improved substantially.

Development during the second and third quarters of the 20th century, which may be termed the period of agricultural industrialization, expanded the interconnectedness and interaction involving the agricultural, socioeconomic, and ecological systems to the national and global levels. Utilization of motorizing, chemical and biological technologies reached very high level toward the end of this period and farming decoupled from nearby town or city. Land, labor and animal productivity have continuously increased, but was dependant on increased off-farm inputs. During the fourth quarter the focus in development was on reducing the costly food surpluses as well as agro-environmental problems. Although agricultural sustainability has been emphasized at all levels since the early 1990s and some improvement in reducing environmental degradation and resource depletion has been achieved, local coevolutionary processes involving farming and the surrounding socioeconomic and ecological systems in an urban-rural context continue to weaken as food processes continue to disappear from most urban centers and the distance between production and consumption widened further. 

Examining Agricultural Sustainability 

By discussing the relationships between numerous sustainability issues in Swedish agriculture according to various dimensions of agricultural sustainability it was possible to chose a limited number of principles that perhaps reflect reasonably well what are presently perceived to be sustainable/unsustainable. The proposed principles are; high production of energy in term of biomass for food, combining animal and crop production, cereal rotation with lea and legumes, limited use of mineral phosphorous fertilizer, limited use of mineral nitrogen fertilizer, limited use of fossil fuel, limited use of biocides, balanced food consumption, balanced regional distribution of agriculture, adequate income to farmers and high degree of integration between farming and both rural and urban population at municipality level.  Table 1 presents estimation of relevant sustainability indicators to these principles for the Swedish municipality of Uppsala.

Table 1   Agricultural sustainability indicators in Uppsala* during the twentieth century

  1901 1927 1951 1976 2000
1. Net harvested energy(m Cal/ha) 5.5 9.2 9.0 13.3 15.0
2. No. of farms with lea cultivation (% of total) >93 >93 >77 63 67
3. No. of farms with cattle husband. (% of total) >93 93 77 57 34
4. Mineral phosphorous use (kg/m Cal) 0.8 0.6 1.3 1.6 0.5
5. Mineral nitrogen use (kg/m Cal) 0.2 0.4 1.8 5.9 4.8
6. Fossil fuel use(liter/m Cal) 0 0.2 7.0 7.9 7.3
7. Biocide use (kg/ha) 0 0 0.9 1.4 0.6
8. Balanced food diet  Low Good Good Low Low
9. Arable land per person (ha) 1.1 0.9 0.7 0.4 0.3
10. Changes in number of farms(% during previous period) - +60 -32 -54 -25
11. Food prod. consumed locally (% of total)  High High High Med.? Low?

Source: Saifi (2004), Table 7.3 and Appendix 1. m Cal refers to million Calories.

  • Indicators 4, 5, 6 and 7 are based on country averages. 

Net energy production per hectare (On average approximately one million Calories is a sufficient annual amount of food energy per person. This may be translated into 3-5 m Cal of energy in cultivated biomass in order to provide a balanced diet) increased by 173% during the twentieth century, with a 68% increase during the first quarter alone. Net energy is measured as the energy in harvested crops minus only the energy used in fossil fuels for machinery and in industrial nitrogen fertilizers. This deduction was approximately 1% of harvested energy in early century, climbing to roughly 10% in the second half of the century. If we would consider the energy in other inputs, however, as well as the energy costs for processing and transportation, then this deduction might well double or triple. The value for this indicator would then have roughly doubled during the course of the century, with about two thirds of the increase occurring in the first quarter. This would have affected the value of other indicators and strengthen the argument of non-sustainable development since the 1930s.

If the indicators chosen represent agricultural sustainability reasonably well, then we can conclude that agricultural sustainability was high and improving during the first quarter of the twentieth century, deteriorating during the second and third quarters, and low but improving during the fourth. Should we focus on net energy production and the use of fossil fuels, a similar conclusion would be reached, especially when full consideration is given to total energy input. First quarter development merits special attention because of the clear improvement in many societal and ecological aspects of sustainability, even though the agricultural system in 1927 was basically unchanged in its main features since 1901.


Since the emergence of the Sumerian City-Stats civilization for some 5 000 years ago important societal and agricultural development has been achieved throughout the world on basis of rural and urban interaction and interconnectedness. Recent Swedish history confirms the possibility and advantage of building sustainable agriculture by focusing development in rural-urban domain as a socio-ecological system.

Five issues may prove to be important for future agricultural development towards sustainability. First, the continuous weakening of local coevolutionary processes in rural-urban context has led to lifting local ecological and socioeconomic constraints and thus to an unsustainable path of agricultural development. Fossil oil powered this process and presently oil shortage and climate change are becoming real.

Second, changes in the interactive subsystems of technology, value, knowledge and organization in the form of policy, demands and prices, have led to different development in Swedish agriculture during the 20th century. Influencing these subsystems was important in bringing desired changes, and it would be important in building sustainable agriculture which may be more easily attained when agricultural development is largely maintained within a socio-ecological system covering a given urban-rural sphere, such as a municipality.

Third, the new Swedish traditional system of early 20th century was sustainable and had the potential for further sustainable development if nutrients from urban areas were circulated and farmers produced energy for powering their machines, but changes in the interactive subsystems favored oil-based industrialization. Indeed, maintaining soil fertility and powering food production by renewable energy, are basic principles for sustainable agriculture and sustainable society.

Fourth, the potential for a sustainable path of agricultural development is large and increasing not least because agriculture still exists in rural’s sphere of most towns and cities and it still combines grain and animal production to some extent, the perception of ecological degradation and natural resource depletion is increasing and there has been a growing interest in various agricultural services, including food safety and security.

Fifth, agriculture can be directed towards sustainability by following a path of development that enhances the coevolutionary processes at the municipality level, influences many related subsystems through short and long term processes, utilizes knowledge from traditional agriculture and complies with principles of sustainable agriculture useful for directing actions and facilitating communication. Such reorientation of agricultural development also involves issues can be appropriately addressed at the municipality level by engaging local actors and population. Municipalities must thus become more involved in supervising and shaping the agricultural production that takes place within their borders. National and other higher levels of interaction can promote such development through financial support, constraints, knowledge, services, regulations, and other forms of assistance.

Further Reading

Saifi, B., 2004. The Sustainability of Swedish Agriculture in a Coevolutionary Perspective. Agraria 469, SLU, Uppsala.

Saifi, B., Drake, L. 2008. Swedish Agriculture during the Twentieth Century in relation to Sustainability. Ecological Economic 68, 370-380.



Saifi, B. (2012). Sustainable Agriculture: Learning from the Past and Strengthening Rural-Urban Interaction and Interconnectedness. Retrieved from


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