What is Sustainable Agriculture?
The word sustainable has become very popular in recent years and it is now used to describe a lot of things. But what is sustainable agriculture? Simply put, sustainable agriculture is the production of plant and animal products, including food, in a way which uses farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, communities, and the welfare of animals. Sustainable agriculture allows us to produce and enjoy healthy foods without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. The key to sustainable agriculture is finding the right balance between the need for food production and the preservation of environmental ecosystems. Sustainable agriculture also promotes economic stability for farms and helps farmers to better their quality of life. Agriculture continues to be the biggest employer in the world with 40% of the world’s population working in it.
According to Wikipedia,
“Sustainable agriculture is the act of farming using principles of ecology, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. It has been defined as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term.”
SUSTAINABILITY IS A SEEMINGLY LAUDABLE GOAL – IT TELLS US WE NEED TO LIVE WITHIN OUR MEANS, WHETHER ECONOMIC, ECOLOGICAL, OR POLITICAL – BUT IT’S INSUFFICIENT FOR UNCERTAIN TIMES. HOW CAN WE LIVE WITHIN OUR MEANS WHEN THOSE VERY MEANS CAN CHANGE, SWIFTLY AND UNEXPECTEDLY, BENEATH US?
~ JAMAIS CASCIO
If given the choice I’m sure we would all choose to consume natural chemical free food instead of food that is sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Sustainable agriculture differs greatly from industrial agriculture where large volumes of crops as well as livestock are produced for sale using industrial techniques. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on pesticides and chemical fertilizers and other chemical enhancers. In the past decade the majority of food we ate has been grown in this manner. In 1996 only 20% of the corn in the United States was genetically modified, that number had reached 88% by 2006. However in the last couple of years, due to the negative aspects of the technique, there has been a slight shift towards the use of sustainable agricultural methods.
Methods of Sustainable Agriculture
1. Crop Rotation: Crop rotation is one of the most powerful techniques of sustainable agriculture. Its purpose is to avoid the consequences that come with planting the same crops in the same soil for years in a row. It helps tackle pest problems, as many pests prefer specific crops. If the pests have a steady food supply they can greatly increase their population size. Rotation breaks the reproduction cycles of pests. During rotation, farmers can plant certain crops, which replenish plant nutrients. These crops reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
2. Cover Crops: Many farmers choose to have crops planted in a field at all times and never leave it barren, this can cause unintended consequences. By planting cover crops, such as clover or oats, the farmer can achieve his goals of preventing soil erosion, suppressing the growth of weeds, and enhancing the quality of the soil. The use of cover crops also reduces the need for chemicals such as fertilizers.
3. Soil Enrichment: Soil is a central component of agricultural ecosystems. Healthy soil is full of life, which can often be killed by the overuse of pesticides. Good soils can increase yields as well as creating more robust crops. It is possible to maintain and enhance the quality of soil in many ways. Some examples include leaving crop residue in the field after a harvest, and the use of composted plant material or animal manure.
4. Natural Pest Predators: In order to maintain effective control over pests, it is important to view the farm as an ecosystem as opposed to a factory. For example, many birds and other animals are in fact natural predators of agricultural pests. Managing your farm so that it can harbor populations of these pest predators is an effective as well as a sophisticated technique. The use of chemical pesticides can result in the indiscriminate killing of pest predators.
5. Bio intensive Integrated Pest Management: Integrated pest management (IPM). This is an approach, which really relies on biological as opposed to chemical methods. IMP also emphasizes the importance of crop rotation to combat pest management. Once a pest problem is identified, IPM will mean that chemical solutions will only be used as a last resort. Instead the appropriate responses would be the use of sterile males, and biocontrol agents such as ladybirds.
Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture
1. Contributes to Environmental Conservation: The environment plays a huge role in fulfilling our basic needs to sustain life. In turn, it is our duty to look after the environment so that future generations are not deprived of their needs. Sustainable agriculture helps to replenish the land as well as other natural resources such as water and air. This replenishment ensures that these natural resources will be able for future generations to sustain life.
2. Public Health Safety: Sustainable agriculture avoids hazardous pesticides and fertilizers. As a result, farmers are able to produce fruits, vegetables and other crops that are safer for consumers, workers, and surrounding communities. Through careful and proper management of livestock waste, sustainable farmers are able to protect humans from exposure to pathogens, toxins, and other hazardous pollutants.
2. Prevents Pollution: Sustainable agriculture means that any waste a farm produces remains inside the farms ecosystem. In this way the waste cannot cause pollution.
3. Reduction in Cost: The use of sustainable agriculture reduces the need for fossil fuels, resulting in significant cost savings in terms of purchasing as well as transporting them. This in turn lessens the overall costs involved in farming.
4. Biodiversity: Sustainable farms produces a wide variety of plants and animals resulting in biodiversity. During crop rotation, plants are seasonally rotated and this results in soil enrichment, prevention of diseases, and pest outbreaks.
5. Beneficial to Animals: Sustainable agriculture results in animals being better cared for, as well as treated humanely and with respect. The natural behaviors of all living animals, including grazing or pecking, are catered for. As a result they develop in a natural way. Sustainable farmers and ranchers implement livestock husbandry practices that protect animals’ health.
6. Economically Beneficial For Farmers: In exchange for engaging with sustainable farming methods, farmers receive a fair wage for their produce. This greatly reduces their reliance on government subsidies and strengthens rural communities. Organic farms typically require 2 ½ times less labor than factory farms yet yield 10 times the profit.
7. Social Equality: Practicing sustainable agriculture techniques also benefits workers as they are offered a more competitive salary as well as benefits. They also work in humane and fair working conditions, which include a safe work environment, food, and adequate living conditions.
Due to population increase, it is estimated that by 2050 we will need approximately 70% more food than is currently being produced in order to provide the estimated 9.6 billion world population with their recommended daily calorie intake. This is by no means a small challenge, but unlike many other sustainability challenges, everyone can play a part. We all need to eat, but by simply reducing food loss and waste, as well as eating diets that are lower impact, and investing in sustainable produce, we can make a difference. From countries, to companies, right down to consumers, we all have a role to play. The challenge is simply making people care in a world where we are surrounded by such abundance.