With the world’s population constantly increasing, one of the pressing problems that we have to deal with is producing enough high-quality, nourishing food to sustain everyone. Yet statistics aren’t showing a bright future. Back in the 1930’s, more than 45% of the US population lived on farms. Nowadays, as a result of massive population shifts towards urban areas, agriculture represents the declared occupation of only 1% of the US population.
Granted, we have significantly increased agricultural productivity with the help of machines that are capable of taking over tasks that would normally require strenuous labor. The downside, however, is that countless farmers and workers have lost their jobs in the process. Is there a way for sustainable agriculture to become an alternative worth considering and, if so, how will we get there?
What is Sustainable Agriculture
The simplest definition for sustainable agriculture is the production of food, fiber, plant or other animal products by means of practices and techniques that protect communities, public health, animal welfare and the environment. Its aim is to not only protect our communities and families but also future generations by providing healthy food without compromising the environment it’s practiced in.
This form of farming is based on the concept that by understanding the ecosystem and the relationships between organisms and their environment, farmers can efficiently create a system where crop and animal production can last long-term and have specific applications. These include:
- Providing sufficient food and fiber for the community it serves
- Maintain or enhance the quality of the environment
- Promote the economic viability of the entire establishment
- Promote a better quality of life for the farmers and workers as well as the community
Such a concept would surely garner massive support and acceptance, not only in small communities but also mainstream agriculture. While it offers economically sound alternatives to conventional agriculture, it also addresses environmental and social concerns.
There are three main purposes of sustainable agriculture:
- Economic equity
- Environmental health
- Economic profitability
The concept is simple: sustainable agriculture is only possible by meeting current requirements without having to compromise future generations and their ability to meet similar needs. For such a goal to be achieved, all those involved in sustainable agriculture must understand the interdisciplinary education required to improve the system as a whole.
Today’s agricultural practices have profoundly affected the land and ecological systems by decreasing soil productivity, contributing to water erosion, soil compaction, increased pesticide concentrations in groundwater and soils, water scarcity, pest, fungus and other pathogen resistance, loss of wetlands, natural habitat destruction, deforestation, reduced genetic diversity and global climate change. But aside from environmental concerns, there are also important economic concerns worth mentioning.
With the intervention of the federal government in the agricultural sector, farmer income disparities have increased dramatically. Simultaneously, the food production, processing and distribution industry has slowly been overtaken by fewer and fewer players, so that market competition is no longer a reality.
Small farms and farmers have little or nothing to say about product prices while their produce is sold at a smaller and smaller price. Rural communities are being disintegrated; productive farmland is being taken over by suburban and urban sprawl while the use of antibiotics and pesticides have dire effects on the health of our families and loved ones.
The Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture
Sustainable agriculture promises to repair many of the wrongs described above. From an environmental standpoint, sustainable farms aim to produce plant-based foods and raise animals free of toxic or chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Much like organic food, sustainable agriculture refuses to use genetically modified seeds and avoids farming practices proven to degrade the soil used to grow crops, the water or any other natural resources that the food production process depends on.
Sustainable farming practices (including crop rotation, minimum tillage, natural fertilizers, poly-crops and pasture-based livestock raising) ensure that farms foster the development of a healthy ecosystem, where the farm is in perfect balance with its environment.
Also, sustainable agriculture also promotes community interaction. The principle of economic equity ensures that farmers, workers, distributors, food processors and other employees have fair working conditions, are safe and have livable wages. Moreover, such farms promote local economies by creating jobs and bringing communities together.
Public health is another major concern when it comes to sustainable agriculture. Since farming practices in sustainable systems don’t include using harmful chemicals, fruits and vegetables are safe to consume. Similarly, animals raised in such systems aren’t fed or given any hormones or antibiotics, a known cause of antibiotic resistance.
The Future of Sustainable Agriculture
In spite of the fact that there is no sustainable agriculture definition, countless communities and farmers have already adopted the concepts and practices that form the basis of sustainable farming. Slowly, even governments are joining non-profit and commercial organizations in their research efforts. Sustainability has become a hot topic, and agricultural policies will also sway towards sustainable agriculture as time goes by.
The USDA has even funded a project pioneered by John Ikerd, “1,000 Ways to Sustainable Farming” via its Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. This project had one goal: that of showcasing and refining the concepts of sustainable agriculture and how successful it can be.
Sustainable agriculture is about productivity, successful yet caring farming practices, and the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Project continued its funding of the project, which became “The New American Farmer”.
While thoroughly explaining the concepts and describing the practice itself is enough to get people interested, the real way of communicating the true concepts behind sustainable agriculture is experiencing it firsthand. Farmers are more than happy to share their success stories and showcase their sustainable farm systems.
There’s no denying that sustainable farming contributes to increased farm profitability, increased quality of life for all those involved as well as vibrant rural communities. The only question is whether a massive shift will occur and farmers will dare to reclaim what was once theirs. In the meantime, researchers and pioneers of the movement are seeking even better methods of achieving economic success.