Is Sustainable Agriculture The Future Of Farming?
Our current farming practices are undeniably unsustainable.
In response to a decline in productivity from overfarming, we’re responding with increased intensity.
And this is something that will inevitably lead to a collapse of our food system if it’s not addressed.
Sustainable agriculture strives to work with the environment and the ecosystems we farm within to replenish that productivity and create a secure, long-term food supply.
That sounds great, of course, but what can sustainable farming actually accomplish right now?
Why do we need sustainable agriculture?
As our population grows, its demand for resources increases. Unfortunately, our planet can’t supply us with infinite resources, and we’re starting to feel the strain on our food systems.
The capitalist approach to agriculture has left us with farming concepts centered around short-term gains and high yields that are efficient but focused solely on profits and rapid growth.
Here’s a snapshot of what unsustainable farming practices have made worse:
- Deforestation, mainly from meat and dairy farming
- Soil erosion and depletion from monoculture farming
- Water contamination from things like pesticides
- Energy use and emissions
The less productive our land becomes, the more competition drives the need for more intensive farming practices, but with this approach there’s no time for resources to renew themselves.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however; our waste doesn’t have to simply pile up until we can’t do anything about it – as it can be broken down, returned to the system, and remodeled as food, fertilizer, and compost.
We live in a global ecosystem with remarkable healing and recycling abilities; when allowed to recover, the environment and the organisms that maintain it bounce back readily and will naturally increase their productivity.
This is the basis of sustainability, and there’s nowhere better to practice it than in our global food network. Sustainable agriculture aims to create a balanced food system for all stakeholders: growers, suppliers, vendors, and consumers.
What are the benefits of sustainable farming?
The benefits of sustainable farming methods are clear.
Paying more attention to how our farms are managed can improve sustainability in three major dimensions.
- Economic benefits: sustainable farming can be both a resilient and prosperous endeavor if done right, for both suppliers and consumers
- Social benefits: education within the farming community in general can be improved through sustainable farming, and consumer exposure to sustainable concepts could easily be improved if food is more familiar
- Environmental benefits: issues of soil and water quality, pesticides, emissions, and others can all be drastically improved with changes to current agricultural practices
By approaching sustainability with all of these dimensions in mind, an economically and socially beneficial outcome is achievable.
Economic benefits are nearly always present in sustainable systems; long-term returns on investments are almost guaranteed when there’s no risk of resource depletion.
Farmers as a whole are able to work more adaptively, increasing the range of what is possible to do on the same parcels of land. Harvests can become more reliable, which boosts the impact of changing farming practices particularly in local, smaller-scale farming networks.
Under a sustainable model, farming as a whole becomes more equitable, and these social benefits cascade into food prices for the average non-farming person as well.
With better access to affordable and nutritious food, food security is strengthened, and better nutrition leads to healthier people who ultimately return those boosts in productivity back to society.
And these are just human benefits; the environment itself needs us to make a shift towards sustainable agriculture, and taking advantage of technology and international trade networks allows different regions to focus on the most appropriate crops for their conditions.
What does the future of farming look like?
As our population surpasses 8 billion, projected food requirements may increase up to 56% by 2050, and at this rate it’s clear that we’re still in the unsustainable growth phase of our existence.
But there are plenty of signs that this is coming to an end.
Food scarcity is increasing and water is running out in many regions of the planet; even the waste itself from what we produce is highly ecotoxic. The point of diminishing returns is on the horizon, and following that it seems like a decline is inevitable.
So not only do we need to slow our growth, but we also need to reach an equilibrium and find a new, comfortable agricultural system; one that strives for harmony and cooperation within our ecosystem.
And many farmers are already doing this. Let’s take a look at some of the main hurdles a widespread move to sustainable agriculture will have to overcome, and then talk about what’s already being done about it.
A carbon tax would also use capitalist fundamentals to nudge the market in the right direction, at least in the developed world.
What does sustainable agriculture actually look like?
You don’t have to look far for proof of concept, as agroecologists are already showing us how to get the best out of our farmland globally.
The environment and the ecosystems that support us aren’t simply passive beneficiaries of sustainable farming, they’re necessary partners in it.
Understanding the interconnectedness of all the organisms in our ecosystem is the key to creating a mutually beneficial production industry that benefits all involved.
Let’s look at some examples of how farming can be approached more sustainably:
Polyculture is a move away from the single-species monoculture farming that is so destructive to biodiversity, and involves multiple crops occupying the same area.
Polycultures have shown mixed results when compared with monocultures in terms of biomass production and stability of yields.
So, it’s essential to find the right mixtures of crops that complement one another to get it right, but basic concepts such as growing nitrogen-fixing legumes as cover crops for other cash crops, are a good place to start.
Cover crops are essentially just crops which are usually planted without the eventual purpose of becoming food.
Instead, they’re grown to cover and protect the soil; and they can easily be sown in as seeds alongside sustainable crops like hemp.
The use of cover crops in general also helps reduce the depletion and erosion of the soil; meaning less needed fertilizer and consequently less hazardous runoff.
Conservation tillage is a low-disturbance approach to tilling soil, which is suggested to reduce soil erosion and maintain beneficial microbial communities in the planting area.
Conservation tillage is another variable practice that comes in many forms and generally ranges from minimal soil disturbance to none at all.
The retention of crop residue from previous harvests is one of the key elements of this practice, and it helps bind the soil, protecting it from erosion.
This, too, is not a guaranteed benefit in all cases. Mismanagement can lead to increased weeds, reduced productivity, and the need for more chemical pesticides – so it needs to be administered properly.
Reducing waste water and evaporation is one way to combat some of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and spare valuable resources, and these practices are particularly beneficial in arid regions.
Drip pipe, or drip line irrigation is growing in popularity, and can be used in conjunction with automated or manual farming practices at any scale.
This is particularly beneficial in dry areas and reduces water wasted through evaporation by administering it directly to the roots of a crop, and this also tends to improve crop yield and quality.
This is one of the more elegant solutions to crop pests: creating a “decoy” plant row that attracts common pests to congregate where they can be safely eliminated without the need for spraying food crops.
As such, it needs to be balanced against the cost-saving and health benefits of reduced pesticide usage.
It’s not hard to see, even from these few examples, how sustainable farming can improve the quality of our food, as well as the air we breathe and the waterways themselves.
And once again, this is an approach that’s designed to last.
As with any change, the dominant industry is going to be hesitant to take the economic risk, but the current state of sustainable agriculture is proving that there are numerous ways in which sustainable farming can be just as profitable, if not more so, than the traditional methods.
What issues stand in the way of sustainable farming?
Taking ideas from what should work, as well as what has been shown to work, there are a few key things to highlight in regards to implementing more sustainable agriculture worldwide.
Investment needs to be at the forefront of any large shift, and this means finding not only what is profitable in theory, but also what will sell in practice.
Crop yields and profitability
It’s obvious that monocultures and harsh pesticides improve yields. So, sheer productivity alone isn’t going to be enough to persuade anyone with financial incentives to get on board with more sustainable practices.
For example, regenerative farming could be as much as 29% less productive; but even in this case, farmers also experienced a 78% increase in profits.
As soil quality improves, so do yields. And costs can also be cut elsewhere, as resource demands in general are reduced when synthetic pesticides and fertilizers aren’t needed as often.
And this is just one example of one form of sustainable agriculture that is already being used; and it’s an approach that already accounts for millions of hectares of farmland already.
Pesticides and GMOs
But GMOs still have a long way to come to compete with the public’s prejudice against them, and there are definitely human rights abuses associated with them when poorly implemented.
Pesticides fall under a similar umbrella, but have nearly no positives in their current state. Rampant overuse, misinformation, and a downright blatant disregard for their effects on wildlife is the norm right now, and there isn’t much room for these kinds of oversights in a sustainable system.
Greenwashing in agriculture
There’s also an element of greenwashing to avoid in the agricultural sector.
Investors and other stakeholders need to establish that regenerative farming elements are legitimate, and methods need to be tried and tested.
Consumers, farmers, and financial backers all deserve to benefit from sustainable food production, and there’s really no room for greenwashing schemes similar to those we see the meat industry peddling currently.
Issues with implementation
Regenerative farming can take a long time to adjust to. In some cases, cycles of several years may be involved in making the switch from intensive monoculture agriculture to more ecologically-balanced methods.
The time involved, combined with the fact that every farm will have different requirements, makes it a long-term investment for farmers.
All farms have different levels of experience as well, and varying amounts of physical space or the ability to change, so all of this needs to be taken into consideration on a case-by-case basis.
Redirecting subsidies can be a massive help, as financial incentives to curb deforestation have worked in Brazil, for example.
And in the UK, conservation funding has helped bridge the gap between scientists and farmers using integrated projects.
As the cost of living soars across the planet, the need for change within our food systems has become increasingly obvious.
The future of agriculture needs to be sustainable, and it won’t be up for debate much longer as communities tire of dealing with climate related disasters.
What do you think needs to change within our food systems?