Abstract The theme of sustainable development is proposed as an integrating framework for focusing theoretical and applied research in rural systems. It also serves as a base for public policy involving economic development and environ- mental maintenance. This paper presents a history of the theme of environmentally sustainable development and provides evidence of its continued theoretical and practical significance. The analysis of sustainability of rural systems is illustrated for agri-food systems from the perspectives of stewardship, food sufficiency and community. There is a need for development of analytical tools capable of considering these three components simultaneously.