What is Sustainable Agriculture?

farm

Sustainability generally refers to meeting the needs of society without compromising future generations ability to meet their future needs. Sustainable agriculture refers to ways of producing textiles and foods that allow us to continue doing so forever.

Having food on the table comes at a great environmental cost. Agriculture is responsible for a host of environmental issues including climate change, water shortages, land degradation and deforestation. Should these problems persist, the abundance we enjoy will fail to last, and our future world could be a very bleak place.

With sustainability principles in mind, we can continue to grow crops and provide ourselves with quality goods and foods through innumerable generations.

To put it all simply, if we take care of nature, it will take care of us.

Key Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture can be broken down into 5 basic principles. The US National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977 defines them.

1. Satisfy food and textile needs

Our food system must be able to successfully feed and clothe all people. Population growth is a major concern for our food system. Land is limited and so is the amount of food we can grow. When the changing climate makes food production more difficult, satisfying everyone’s will become a major challenge.

2. Enhance environmental and natural resource quality

A healthy environment means a productive agricultural sector. But what happens when productive agriculture destroys the environment? By enhancing natural resources and the natural environment, farms benefit alongside nature.

3. Efficient use of nonrenewables

Some of the world’s resources are limited. As the years go on minerals and fossil fuels are becoming more and more scarce. Not only that, the extraction of these resources has environmental consequences.

4. Utilize natural cycles and biological processes

Nature works through a constant cycle of life and death. Plants work both with and against one another in this natural, synchronized cycle. Sustainable agriculture seeks to bring farming operations in sync with this cycle so that their crops can thrive.

5. Economic viability

Farming is a business like any other and profits must be earned in order to continue and improve operations is essential. The economics of farming is highly complex, with mainly large farms owning most of the market. Although many think sustainability is expensive and inefficient, both small and large farms can thrive when they employ sustainability principles.

The Three Es

Sustainability takes into account the many “stakeholders” and systems affected by agriculture. These three dynamics make up the sustainable agriculture philosophy:

  • Environment
  • Economy
  • Equity

In sustainable agriculture, the health of the planet might seem like the primary concern, but so are economic profitability and social equity. This is referred to as a “systems perspective” because it includes the various economic, social, and environmental systems within which a farm operates.

A balance must be struck with each of these dynamics for a sustainable system to succeed. As a simple example, a local asparagus farmer (1) has a responsibility to care for the local environment which includes both wildlife and people, (2) has to hire employees with dignity and respect, (3) and has to make a fair profit.

Environment

Farming can cause environmental problems through degrading soil, land, and nutrients, using energy, creating emissions, reducing biodiversity, affecting water quality, and more. Even having food on the shelves inside the grocery store has an impact.

Economy

There is no reason to run a farm if it loses money and lacks financial incentives for its owners. Sustainable agriculture takes into account the need for farmers to come up with a profit, while providing quality goods.

Equity

Reducing harm to other people is essential for sustainable food systems. Employees in the agriculture industry often face grueling, unsafe work conditions. It’s important that employees are treated fairly while on the job and also compensated fairly for their work. Also, the environmental effects of agriculture directly affect people. For example, pollution caused by farm runoff can affect drinking water supplies.

Farms are a business like any other, so they need to take into account all the factors that affect their ability to be sustainable in the long-term.

Sustainability Factors

Water

Irrigation systems are the main concern when it comes to sustainable water uses. Some areas get plenty of rain and don’t require getting water from a distant source. Irrigation systems are required in much of the world’s farmland.

California, for example, is the world’s most productive farmland, yet almost all water comes from the rivers flowing west from the snowy Sierra Nevada. The central valley is a dry, brushy landscape with little water to spare. Advanced irrigation systems and monumental dams divert water into the warm valley below where huge farms grow crops such as oranges, almonds, and rice.

In the face of climate change, droughts are a major concern for farmers who operate in more arid regions of the world and those with a rapidly changing climate. There is only so much groundwater available when droughts affect surface water supplies.

Often farming activities can use more water than can be replenished naturally. Water then becomes a non-renewable resource. Water from rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers is practically unlimited if used responsibly. However, as in the case of the Ogallala Aquifer in the central United States, much of the water is nonrenewable and it is set to run out eventually.

According to the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, solutions related to water include:

  • improve water conservation and storage
  • provide incentives for drought-tolerant crops
  • reduce the volume of irrigation systems
  • improve crop management
  • decide not to plant crops sometimes

Salinization

Salinization is a situation where too much salt is deposited in soil. Humans cause salinization primarily through drainage and irrigation practices. Areas may become waterlogged, raising the water table and depositing salt closer to the surface. Then, once the excess water evaporates, the salts remain on the surface. Plants in salty soil cannot absorb water. According to John Vidal of Ensia, 2.4 billion acres are affected, 150 million acres are damaged, and 190 million acres are permanently lost to salinization.

Soil

Farming activities have a significant impact on the quality of soils. In a normal ecosystem, dead plant matter rots and composts into soil which then provides nutrition for young new plants. Farms disrupt this normal cycle of soil and nutrient replenishment because they use up all the nutrients without replenishing the soil. 


Erosion, another serious issue, reduces farmers’ ability to grow food as healthy soils are washed away. This is caused by excessive tillage, irrigation runoff, and lack of mulch or cover crops.

According to UC Davis’ Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, “In sustainable systems, the soil is viewed as a fragile and living medium that must be protected and nurtured to ensure its long-term productivity and stability.”

Methods such as using cover crops, compost, or manures, reducing tillage, avoiding traffic on wet soils, and maintaining soil cover with plants/mulches can improve soil health.

A cover crop is a plant that is grown specifically to improve soil health and prevent erosion, as well as to manage weeds and pests. Various grasses like oats and legumes like soybeans or peas are normally used as cover crops.

Throughout the United States, intensive farming of staple crops has caused huge problems with soil health. Historically, farmers have treated soil as a simple medium for planting crops rather than a sensitive living thing. They overuse fertilizer and herbicides in order to compensate for the poor soil health. The soil is loose and dry and doesn’t soak up water and nutrients. Dust blown from fields causes respiratory concerns in rural communities. Local citizens are exposed to excessive amounts of chemicals such as nitrate (a common fertilizer) from polluted farm runoff.

Maintaining soil health is one of the most important things we can do to create a sustainable food system. Luckily techniques such as planting cover crops are easy for farmers to adopt. Healthy soil makes for healthy plants, and in return, healthy people and animals.

Land

Land as a resource is an important piece of the sustainability puzzle. Population growth and urban sprawl affect how much land we have for growing crops. Urban growth destroys wild land and reduces the amount of farmland. Deforestation and degradation of wild lands takes a blow to biodiversity and increases erosion, all of which directly affect our long-term ability to grow crops.

Responsible land use is essential to maintaining food sources worldwide. Much of this comes to the way we legally divide up our land. For example, conservation and public lands management are important for protecting wild lands and productive agricultural regions. Sometimes the scale of land ownership affects the environment. Large-scale farms might not employ sustainable practices as often as small scale farms. As in the case of the sheep-herding Vikings of the Faroe Islands, “fine partitioning of land allotments contributed to soil erosion more than grazing itself.”

In the case of Selva Shrimp, farming a local species of shrimp prevents the destruction of wild mangrove habitat. By changing the way the farmers manage the land, farmers can strike harmony between producing food and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Wildlife itself is seen as a vital resource for producing seafood. Whereas previously, wildlife was seen as an obstacle to producing seafood.

Energy

Farms use energy in a variety of ways including mechanized farm equipment, food processing, storage, and transportation. Indirect inputs include the production of fertilizer and other chemicals.

While the agricultural sector only consumes about 2 percent of US primary energy, it’s important to think about energy efficiency in terms of costs to the farm. For example, oil is a major input for agriculture, thus food prices are closely linked to oil prices. If diesel fuel makes running tractors and farm machinery more expensive, then food prices will naturally rise.

Alternative Energy

Farmers have many opportunities to take advantage of renewable, alternative energy. They can use their large tracts of land as energy sources while continuing to farm.

Wind farms have popped up all over the Midwest and Plains states on existing farmland. Solar arrays can also subsidize farm costs by providing power to the grid.

Some farmers even use solar panels as an alternative to planting crops. Solar energy is often utilized alongside keeping livestock. The livestock control overgrowth by eating all the vegetation below or around the panels. The animals have a nice meal, and the farmers don’t need to waste time trimming and mowing.

Farmers can sell corn to be made into ethanol fuel as well. For corn farmers, it is a good way to diversify their income streams depending on prices. It seems sort of ironic using all that fuel just to grow more fuel, but farming for ethanol is efficient despite what many think.

The Issue With Livestock

Livestock has the largest environmental footprint of any sector within agriculture. 77 percent of land is dedicated to animal agriculture yet it counts as only 17 percent of food supply. One third of all water used to grow crops is for feed crops. According to Fast Company, 6% of world greenhouse gas emissions come from beef in the form of feed production, fuel, electricity, methane, and nitrous oxide.

We covered the negative impact of eating meat, particularly beef, in our extensive article about “Plant-Based Meat.”

Improvements in Supply Chains

Food and textile production is a highly complex process that doesn’t stop at the farm. There is a long chain of actions that bring agricultural products to stores as finished goods. Aside from planting and harvesting, products must be processed, packed, shipped, sold, consumed, and disposed of. That means there are many opportunities along the way with which to achieve sustainability. Below we listed some innovations that happen off of the farm.

  • Grocery store energy efficiency in store environment and refrigeration
  • Fuel efficient or electric trucks for transporting foods
  • Prevent spoilage with different techniques (we wrote about Apeel Sciences, a company who harnesses the power of nature’s peel to make produce last longer)
  • Biodegradable packaging that doesn’t end up in our waterways and oceans

Sustainable Agricultural Methods

The list of sustainable agriculture methods is long. For instance, agritourism, agroforestry, cover cropping, producing renewables on farms, intensification and organic agriculture all fall under the idea of “sustainable agriculture.” Every farm produces different products, thus they each have totally different operations. By taking into account effects on soil health and nutrients, water consumption pollution, and energy usage we can produce agricultural products in a sustainable way.

Traditional vs. Modern

Many sustainable methods are derived from traditional farming practices used by people for centuries. Modern farming techniques have brought us an abundance of food and other products, but the end result has been the destruction of natural habitat, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems. Sustainable techniques are designed to be in tune with natural processes. Above all, the goal is to conserve nature so that we can create productive, but low-impact farms that operate in synchronization with it. The healthier the greater ecosystem, the more productive the farms growing crops within it.

Below are some examples of traditional farming techniques we can use to grow food sustainably:

  • Agroforestry
  • Crop rotation
  • Cover cropping
  • Crop-animal integration
  • Organic composting
  • Natural pest control

You can even try sustainable farming methods at home in your garden, porch, or living room to produce your own food!

Sustainable Farming Makes Sense

Sustainable agriculture takes a holistic view of the process of farming. It considers all the systems with which a farm interacts.

It breaks free from the status quo of treating farms like factories. Those “factories” have wrought destruction upon the Earth which in turn will affect all of humanity in the coming decades. To prevent disaster, our only option is to rethink the way we grow food.

In conclusion, farming takes deep scientific and practical knowledge, but farming sustainably takes even more. By studying nature closely and being her steward, we can produce an abundance of food forever.

Sources

What is Sustainable Agriculture? | Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_agriculture

https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/what-sustainable-agriculture

https://nifa.usda.gov/topic/sustainable-agriculture

https://sarep.ucdavis.edu/sustainable-ag

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