“Agriculture must mediate between nature and the human community, with ties and obligations in both directions.”

― Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food


This quote by author and farmer Wendell Berry emphasizes the intricate, innate connections between agriculture and people. Agriculture is fundamentally a human activity and therefore, social elements must be incorporated into pursuits of sustainable agriculture. The resources in this section provide an introduction to some of the social elements of sustainable agriculture. To organize these resources, we’ve chosen to adopt the criteria for assessing social outcomes of farming systems from Bacon et al. (2012)--culture; democracy; equity, justice, and ethics; human health; quality of life and well-being; resilience; and working conditions. We also acknowledge there are many ways to subdivide this topic. This non exhaustive list is meant to stimulate thinking and action toward a more just, equitable agriculture and food system for all. 


Bacon, C., Getz, C., Kraus, S., Montenegro, M., & Holland, K. (2012). The Social Dimensions of Sustainability and Change in Diversified Farming Systems. Ecology and Society, 17(4). https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-05226-170441

  • This paper proposes criteria to assess social outcomes of diversified farming systems and compares these outcomes across three case studies. The authors contextualize the paper with an in-depth historical examination of social dimensions of sustainability. Their proposed assessment criteria contain themes and specific variables for analysis. 


Brodt, S., Six, J., Feenstra, G., Ingels, C., & Campbell, D. (2011). Sustainable Agriculture. Nature Education Knowledge, 3(10), 1. https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/sustainable-agriculture-23562787/

  • This article provides a basic overview of sustainable agriculture. It discusses the history, key concepts, and three dimensions of sustainable agriculture. The discussion of social and economic dimensions are blended together, with a focus on pay and working conditions with regards to the social dimension of sustainable agriculture.


Gold, M. (2007, August). Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms. | Alternative Farming Systems Information Center| NAL | USDA. https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/sustainable-agriculture-definitions-and-terms#toc3c

  • This webpage provides a glossary of sustainable agriculture definitions and terms, compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture. There are also a few short sections of background information about sustainable agriculture.


Herren, H., Haerlin, B., & IAASTD+10 Advisory Group (Eds.). (2020). Key messages: Transformation of our food systems-the making of a paradigm shift. Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft (Foundation on Future Farming) & Biovision. https://www.arc2020.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/IAASTD_10_Key-Messages-ENGLISH.pdf

  • This document summarizes key messages from a follow-up book to the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report. The book covers emerging trends that impact sustainable agriculture, including climate change, biodiversity, health, human rights, corporate concentration, resource grabbing, and equity. The document contains eight key messages/imperatives for transforming food systems, most of which emphasize social elements of agricultural sustainability. A link to download the full book (free) is available in the document.


Ikerd, J. (1997, January 15). Understanding and Managing the Multi-Dimensions of Sustainable Agriculture. Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Professional Development Program Workshop, Gainesville, FL.

  • In this presentation, Dr. Ikerd describes the dimensions of agricultural sustainability, a new paradigm, and proposed strategies. Ikerd argues that agriculture is fundamentally a human act and therefore economic and social motives of people should be included in discussions of sustainability. He asks the question “sustainability for whom?” and argues that we cannot have an ecologically sound and economically viable agricultural system without social justice. A lack of social justice results in an inherently unstable, unsustainable system, which will suffer from recurring conflicts (social, economic, and environmental). Ikerd posits that a post-industrial paradigm for agriculture is emerging within the concept of agricultural sustainability. Ikerd concludes with a discussion of systems thinking strategies and other frameworks to approach sustainable agriculture.


Janker, J., & Mann, S. (2020). Understanding the social dimension of sustainability in agriculture: A critical review of sustainability assessment tools. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 22(3), 1671–1691. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-018-0282-0

  • This is a very current study of how social dimensions of sustainability are (or are not) addressed in sustainability assessment tools. The authors found a lack of definitions of social sustainability, supporting their hypothesis that consensus does not exist. There are two common directions taken in sustainability assessment tools: human rights/working conditions and life quality/impact on society. The human rights/working conditions direction represent internationally validated guidelines and are broadly applicable; life quality/impact on society is more subjective and challenging to operationalize. The authors conclude by arguing for context-dependent and locally adapted choices of scope and standard. The development of a comprehensive social science framework would help provide guidance for context-specific sustainability assessment.


Sustainable Local Food Systems Research Group. (n.d.). Community Food Toolkit. Nourishing Communities | Sustainable Local Food Systems Research Group. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from http://nourishingontario.ca/community-food-toolkit/

  • This website provides a toolkit to create community food systems. It includes resources on hosting a community workshop and detailed case studies. It was assembled by the Nourishing Ontario Sustainable Local Food Systems Research Group.


Carlson, J., & Chappell, M. J. (2015). Deepening Food Democracy. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. https://www.iatp.org/sites/default/files/2015_01_06_Agrodemocracy_JC_JC_f_0.pdf

  • This document provides tools for creating a sustainable food system by using deep democractic approaches (i.e., more participation by more citizens). The authors include overviews of food sovereignty, agrarian citizenship, food democracy, and deep democracy. They also present several international case studies from Brazil, Denmark, Switzerland, and the U.S.

Equity, Justice, and Ethics

21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. (n.d.). Food Solutions New England. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://foodsolutionsne.org/21-day-racial-equity-habit-building-challenge/

  • This is an annual racial equity challenge hosted by Food Solutions New England. The challenge is “live” each April and resources and prompts are available year-round. The aim of the challenge is to examine structural and institutional racism in the food systems as well as to identify ways individuals and organizations can act to dismantle these systems.


Penniman, L. (2020). To free ourselves we must feed ourselves. Agriculture and Human Values, 37(3), 521–522. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-020-10055-3

  • This is a rapid response opinion piece about food sovereignty and the COVID-19 pandemic. Penniman briefly describes five shifts to bring about a just and sustainable food system: land redistribution, farmworker justice, localized mutual aid, ecological humility, and universal food access with dignity. 


Racial Equity in the Food System Workgroup. (n.d.). Racial Equity in the Food System Workgroup. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/racial-equity-workgroup

  • This website contains resources (publications and webinars) assembled by a community of extension professionals and community members. There are several lists on this site that contain links to additional external resources.


USFSA | Official website of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2020, from http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/

  • This is the website for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, a U.S.-based alliance of food justice, anti-hunger, labor, environmental, faith-based, and food producer groups. They work on a variety of social aspects of the food system and provide numerous resources on the topic of food sovereignty.

Human Health

Garcia, S. N., Osburn, B. I., & Jay-Russell, M. T. (2020). One Health for Food Safety, Food Security, and Sustainable Food Production. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.00001

  • This article applies the One Health concept to food safety, food security, and sustainable food production. The authors argue for interdisciplinarity to address these complex issues.


Lindgren, E., Harris, F., Dangour, A. D., Gasparatos, A., Hiramatsu, M., Javadi, F., Loken, B., Murakami, T., Scheelbeek, P., & Haines, A. (2018). Sustainable food systems—A health perspective. Sustainability Science, 13(6), 1505–1517. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0586-x

  • This article discusses the interactions among soicio-economic factors and agriculture, with a focus on malnutrition and food security. The article examines two of the challenges to addressing malnutrition and food security: the impact of climate change on reduced yield and nutritional quality of crops; and the trade-offs between food production and industrial crops.

Quality of Life and Well-Being

Heleba, D. (2017). Health and Well-Being. Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension.

  • This fact sheet is part of a SARE series called Social Sustainability on the Farm. The intended audience is professionals who work with farmers. The fact sheet outlines the importance of health and well-being and provides recommendations for how professionals working with farmers can help.


Adolph, B. (n.d.). Resilience in agricultural and food systems. International Institute for Environment and Development. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://www.iied.org/resilience-agricultural-food-systems

  • This website presents case studies pertaining to a variety of social aspects of sustainable agriculture. They have additional focuses on resilience and local control of food systems.

Working Conditions

Hurst, P., Termine, P., & Karl, M. (2005). Agricultural Workers and their Contribution to Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development. Food and Agriculture Organization; International Labour Organization; International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations. http://www.fao.org/3/af164e/af164e00.pdf

  • This is a report on global waged agricultural workers. The report argues that waged agricultural workers are under-recognized by government and policy organizations. Waged agricultural workers have a set of common needs: fighting poverty, obtaining the right to organize, and improving working conditions on farms. The report examines the demographics of waged farm workers; the responsibilities of employers, governments, development agencies, and others to improve livelihoods; and examples of waged worker contributions to sustainable agriculture. It concludes with recommendations to address waged worker rights and promote sustainable agriculture.


Strochili, R., & Hamerschlag, K. (2005). Best Labor Management Practices on Twelve California Farms: Toward a More Sustainable Food System. California Institute for Rural Studies. https://www.cirsinc.org/publications/farm-labor?download=51:best-labor-practices-on-twelve-california-farms-toward-a-more-sustainable-food-system-

  • This report presents research on best labor management practices on twelve California farms. The California Institute for Rural Studies conducted on-farm interviews and focus groups with farmers and farmworkers and supplemented these with additional literature review and interviews with other stakeholders. The authors compile best practices from this research and discuss economic limitations associated with implementing these practices. They conclude with a discussion of external economic and policy factors that impact farm labor practices.