When we think of environmental hazards, we often think of plastic in the oceans or pollutants filling the air from our cars.
These risks are real, but sometimes the most pressing dangers come from the least expected sources.
This is especially true for farming.
Farming is easy to idealize. After all, what could be more natural than working the earth and growing plants?
The answer may surprise you.
Farming is imperative to support the human race, but it is also a threat.
That is why it is so important to understand sustainable farming and how it can be a viable alternative to conventional farming practices.
In this article, we will cover the following topics:
- What sustainable farming is
- How sustainable farming works
- Examples of sustainable farming
- Sustainable farming solutions
- Other sustainable farming facts
What Is Sustainable Farming?
Sustainability is a popular catchphrase in environmental circles, but it would be a mistake to think that sustainable farming is just the next eco friendly trend.
To the contrary, the concept of sustainable farming has been around for centuries.
According to the USDA, sustainable farming looks at the long-term ability to maintain food output.
Farmers must work year to year to produce food, but sustainable farming takes a wider look at practices and tools that support yields for years, decades and even centuries.
To this end, there are three main facets to consider when looking at sustainable farming:
- Environmental factors
- Social factors
- Economic factors
These three factors all must be addressed in order for farming to achieve sustainability. In other words, farming practices should preserve environmental resources, provide societal gains and be profitable.
In this way, sustainable farming will help farmers earn more money, provide quality food at an affordable price and support long-term environmental goals.
Check out this short video which summarizes all the issues of conventional industrial farming and shows several sustainable alternatives:
Why Is Sustainable Farming Important?
While the goal of sustainable farming is hard to argue against, many people fail to realize just how pressing the need is.
After all, how bad is conventional farming?
Why do we need to establish better practices in the industry?
A look at the data can be revealing.
It can also be quite sobering.
When you look at greenhouse gases, which threaten our climate in dramatic ways, food production is a huge contributor. In fact, it is estimated that 26 percent of those gases can be linked to food production.
The impact of food production extends to our water sources. Agriculture accounts for a daunting 70 percent of the world’s freshwater withdrawal.
Worse, almost 80 percent of the world’s water pollution can be traced back to agriculture.
Moreover, livestock greatly outnumber all other natural animal populations. The numbers are staggering.
For every one wild animal, there are 15 livestock animals. Most endangered animals in the world today are at risk due to agricultural practices.
Even the land itself is under threat. When you look at land usage across the globe, the vast majority is dedicated to agriculture.
There is even more data that documents the risk of chemicals in the soil, bacteria in the water and more.
These problems can be linked to the use of pesticides for crop yields and antibiotics in livestock maintenance.
Farming is important to keep the human race alive. However, it is increasingly clear that farming also puts our planet at risk.
That is why sustainable farming seeks to address both issues in clear, practical ways.
Is Sustainable Farming Possible?
In broad strokes, it is easy to see why sustainable farming is important for our planet and our survival as the human race.
However, in practical application, there are certainly still more questions to answer.
In particular, sustainable farming is clearly an ideal, but there are practical solutions to help us achieve that goal. Some of those solutions have been drawn up by experts:
Crop rotation is hardly a new idea. Farmers have known for centuries that planting different crops in the fields from year to year helps keep the soil healthier.
In the modern world, crop rotation can be more complex by mixing crops in the same area and implementing precise rotations over a span of several years.
Farming has a natural cycle. In the spring, crops are planted. Throughout the summer, the plants are tended.
By the fall, most crops must be harvested, and the fields are left bare all winter. Leaving the fields bare puts the soil at risk.
By planting simple cover crops like clover or hairy vetch, it is possible to provide a layer of protection.
This protection can prevent erosion, minimize weeds and replenish nutrients in the soil.
Traditionally, farmers have plowed or tilled the soil in order to prepare it for planting.
Tilling is used to get rid of weeds, which promotes better plant growth. Unfortunately, tilling the ground leads to significant soil loss.
By working with methods that reduce or eliminate the need for tilling, it is possible to preserve soil health.
Many of these new techniques require the seed to be inserted directly into the ground in order to limit the risk of erosion.
Integrated pest management
Pest management is a huge problem in farming. Over the last century, many farmers turned to pesticides to combat the problem.
The result was reduced pest problems but at a significant cost. Pesticides can lead to many other environmental and health risks.
This is why integrated pest management is important. This is a more comprehensive approach to pest management that relies on mechanical and biological solutions.
This helps keep pests at bay without turning to traditional chemical pesticides.
Livestock and crop integration
On a traditional farm, crop production and livestock maintenance tend to be dealt with separately.
In fact, most of the time, animals are kept far away from crops. There is not a lot of logic to this.
Animals feed on the crops, and the manure from livestock is prime fertilizer.
There is evidence that suggests integrating these two components can provide real benefits for crop yields and animal populations.
In short, integration can be at the heart of an efficient and profitable farm. It is also far more sustainable.
Most people think of farms as wide open spaces and abundant fields. However, there are real benefits to incorporating trees into the farming landscape.
When trees or shrubs are planted across the land, many natural benefits follow. The increased shade can provide shelter for plants and animals.
These plants can also provide protection for natural water resources. Moreover, smart farmers can also use these trees or shrubs for additional income.
Managing the big picture
Overall, sustainable farming takes a big picture approach. It is not just about one field. It is about looking at the whole system.
Farms need to look at land comprehensively, taking cultivated areas into consideration alongside uncultivated areas.
The fact is that riparian buffers and prairie strips, which are often overlooked by conventional farming, are vitally important in sustainable practices.
These areas can control erosion, reduce nutrient loss, support pollinators and more.
Sustainable farming looks at entire landscapes and ecosystems to make yields more productive, profitable and safe.
Ultimately, sustainable farming embraces the complexity of nature. It is human nature to simplify a problem to make it more manageable, but that is a risk in farming.
Working the land requires a multifaceted approach that appreciates and embraces the diversity of the landscape.
These practices are really just the start. As more people understand the importance of sustainable farming, more methods and practices are being developed.
This should give us hope that sustainable farming is feasible for the modern world’s food supply.
What Is an Example of Sustainable Agriculture?
The theory behind sustainable farming is one that most people can support. The principles are universally sound and extremely appealing.
The application is a bit harder to grasp. This is especially true for novices and regular consumers.
Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of established, successful sustainable agriculture that can be used to educate and inspire.
Just look at Blue Dasher Farm:
To prevent soil erosion or degradation, fields are positioned amid pockets of native prairie flowers. Natural water drainage is allowed, and livestock is used to clear the fields section by section.
This farm is comprehensive in its approach. The area is flush with prairie grasses and plants in order to attract and support pollinators like bees.
Unlike traditional farms with clear crop sections, the plants are integrated at Blue Dasher Farms. Cover crops are used to protect unused soil.
By allowing the livestock to roam over the land, manure is a natural and effective fertilizer.
The effect is palpable. Operations like Blue Dasher Farms show that it is possible to have an efficient, profitable and sustainable farm.
Are Small Farms More Sustainable?
Sustainable farming is a practice. It is not a size. However, that is not to say that size is not typically a factor in sustainable farming operations.
To be sure, size is a very important factor for the overall sustainability of most farms. The Washington Post breaks down the differences.
The reason large farms have grown in status is because these farms are more profitable. They are more efficient and produce larger yields.
Therefore, they earn more money and allow owners to invest in more expansion.
Small farms, by contrast, can never compete with the yields. They are less efficient almost by definition, and their market is smaller and more local.
This limits the economic growth of the farm, which makes it less competitive in the market.
This disparity makes it clear why large farms are starting to dominate the agricultural landscape. However, other disparities show why this is not a good thing.
Large farms cause far more environmental disruption. Large farms are the largest source of pollution for waterways.
In order to produce huge yields, large farms work huge swaths of land and often use a multitude of pesticides and fertilizers to maximize the harvest.
Moreover, the toll of keeping huge animal populations is also worth noting. There are questions to be asked about animal welfare and the environmental impact of such choices.
Small farms do not necessarily avoid all of these issues. There are plenty of small farms that do not operate on sustainable terms.
Still, it is easier for a small farm to control its environmental impact. The huge profit margins required by large farms often necessitate less sustainable methods.
In the end, you cannot judge a farm’s sustainability by its size. Yet size can be a factor to consider when sourcing your food.
What Are the Impediments to Sustainable Farming?
Given the obvious benefits of sustainable agriculture, you may wonder why more farmers are not getting on board.
The answer is more complicated than you probably realize, and the obstacles facing these farmers are more pressing.
To start, as explained earlier, larger farms do not tend to use sustainable practices. Therefore, the burden of sustainable farming falls to smaller operations.
Simply put, many of these small farms lack the funding necessary to be successful in this type of venture.
Even established small farms with a good local consumer base face unique challenges. Farm employment is not often seen as desirable, which means small farms face issues with understaffing on a consistent basis.
On top of that, these farms are often poorly equipped to leverage their assets. Sustainable farms need additional support for accounting, bookkeeping, distribution, online sales and more.
These considerations may seem trivial in light of the benefits. Still, for farmers trying to make the effort, these obstacles can be insurmountable.
In short, sustainable farming needs ongoing support from consumers, economic backers and lawmakers in order to find success in a competitive worldwide agricultural marketplace.
Is Sustainable Farming Organic?
While sustainable farming and organic farming have some crossover, the two concepts should not be confused or conflated.
In fact, they have distinct definitions with different implications for your health and our planet.
Organic farming is focused on eliminating non-organic elements to food production. Organic farming does not use pesticides, and natural fertilizing options are implemented.
Organic farming also focuses on organic seeds without any genetic modification. Animals are treated without antibiotics.
Some of these principles obviously overlap with our working understanding of sustainable farming. However, sustainable farming takes things to a different level.
Sustainable farming looks at the interaction between the farm and the environment. These practices seek to improve the natural balance.
These farms are intended to support the environment and the farmer simultaneously.
To this end, some organic farms may not focus on crop rotation or reduced tilling. Some sustainable farms may use non-organic or genetically modified seeds.
Clearly, some farms will strive to be both sustainable and organic, but it is not a given.
How Can We Make Farming More Sustainable?
If sustainable farming seems like too lofty of a goal, then do not worry. Despite the grander ambitions of sustainable farming, there are simple measures that can be taken by farmers everywhere.
It is recommended to approach sustainable farming in a systematic way. Look at the farming operation at large, and find the easiest places to change.
For example, maybe the easiest first step toward sustainability is planting buffer fields around cropland.
These blank spaces may already exist on the farm, and simply planting the right plants to grow up and protect the area from erosion can go a long way toward supporting healthy soil.
Perhaps the first step is regular crop rotation with cover crop in the off season. The simple act of planting low maintenance cover crop during the winter may be a cost effective way to improve soil quality.
Some people may question the viability of these small steps, but there are studies to support that such steps are possible.
With support, even farmers in developing nations have been able to make simple, practical strides forward with sustainable farming efforts.
For those with an environmental motivation, small steps may seem frustrating. However, given the scale of modern agriculture, even small steps can have a big impact.
The overall goal of sustainable farming is a change in mindset. Such a change can take a long time to adapt.
However, for the benefit of our health and our planet, this time and effort is very worthwhile.
What Measures Are in Place to Support Sustainable Farming?
While changes must be implemented farm by farm, there are broader strokes that can and have been taken to support and encourage sustainable farming. In the United States, many of these measures start with the farm bill.
The farm bill was introduced into law decades ago. The first farm bill was passed in 1933 as a way to combat the terrible effect the Great Depression had on American farms.
Since that time, the farm bill is consistently renewed and updated. One of its founding principles has always been conservation. The 2018 version takes this to important new lengths.
The 2018 bill gives farmers and ranchers more flexibility in times of natural disaster, and it also promotes rental rates.
More importantly, it provides new incentives to help novice farmers and veterans get established in the agricultural world.
In terms of conservation, the bill has several important additions. Now, farmers have more incentive to use sustainable practices such as grazing and cover crops.
This will give farmers the support they need to make sustainable choices in a competitive agricultural market.
On a related note, the 2018 farm bill also includes provisions to support organic farming.
As previously noted, organic farming and sustainable farming are not the same thing, but they are both important for our overall health and safety.
In general, the farm bill is an important part of developing sustainable farming efforts in America. This legal framework will help support farming practices for years to come.
How Can I Support Sustainable Farming?
The government can only provide so much support. In the end, regular people have to support sustainable farming efforts as well.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to do this. The two listed below are just the start:
Eating local is a great way to make sure that sustainable farming persists. Supermarkets often source food from large farms, and many supermarkets will get imports from around the world in search of variety and better prices.
When you buy local food, it is much easier to trace its source. In this manner, you can verify where it was grown and how it was grown.
The benefits are quite obvious. On the one hand, buying local supports your local economy. Given the need sustainable farms have for income, this is incredibly important.
Eating local also reduces the amount of energy it takes to get your food to your table.
When shipping food over long distances, much energy is consumed to package and transport the food. Local shopping reduces this and supports sustainable initiatives.
Reduce Meat Intake
Another key to help sustainable farming efforts is to cut back on your meat intake. This is especially important when it comes to red meat.
Red meats and other animal-based foods are very harmful to the environment. This category of foods composes 83 percent of our dietary emissions.
Red meat alone produces 60 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilogram of meat.
Plus, reducing red meat means increasing plant-based proteins. This helps promote the diversity grown at most sustainable farms.
Farming is important to our survival as a species. However, the way we farm can preserve the system and the planet.
That is why sustainable farming is so vital. By understanding the way sustainable farming works, it is possible to support critical farming initiatives and do your part in creating a sustainable system for generations to come.