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What Is Sustainable Agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture is about protecting the natural biological cycles without compromising the ability of future generations to survive. Practicing sustainable agriculture implies interdisciplinary efforts focused on conserving natural resource bases and recycling non-renewable resources. 

In this article, we will discuss the concept of sustainable agriculture and its policies. We will also talk about various sustainable agricultural practices like proper soil management, water conservation, natural pest control, and urban agriculture.

What is sustainable agriculture?  

sustainable agriculture
Photo by Walmart on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Sustainable agriculture refers to the farming practices that protect the environment, make the best use of natural resources, and expand natural resources. It involves setting up an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that enhance environmental quality, use non-renewable resources efficiently, and maintain the economic viability of operations to satisfy human food production.

Sustainable agriculture is essential to the construction of sustainable food systems. It avoids agricultural practices that work against nature rather than work with it. These practices include deforestation to create land space for farming and improper disposal of agricultural waste, which leads to environmental pollution.    

Sustainable Farming Practices 

Some sustainable agricultural practices are:   

1. Water conservation

irrigation
Photo by feraugustodesign on Needpix.

Conventional agriculture uses tons of water from the groundwater to other water sources. Statistics show that agriculture uses 70% of the global freshwater sources and 90% of groundwater. Agricultural practices use 85% of the United States water supply, leading to water shortages in about 49 states by 2024.

Agricultural consumption rates led to various problems like groundwater depletion, water scarcity, and pollution. Overusing water threatens human and wildlife survival. Some water-saving practices that maintain water quality and efficient usage. They are dripping irrigation, deficit irrigation, water-saving cultivars, and water management. 

Drip irrigation delivers water efficiently to plant roots to reduce evaporation loss. Farmers pass water under low pressure through plastic tubing buried in the soil. They could also place the tube on the soil. Drip irrigation is a costly farming practice, but it saves 80% more water than regular irrigation systems.

Another form of water management is irrigation scheduling. It helps determine the best frequency and length of watering crops. Farmers do this by watching the soil moisture, weather, and plant conditions and considering the irrigation method to set up correct irrigation schedules. It helps prevent over-watering and underwatering plants. 

Farmers can use water more sustainably by planting crops that require less water. They can also include rainwater storage to improve their animal production practices. Rainwater storage prevents lakes, streams, wells, and other water sources from drying up and helps maintain soil moisture for a successful harvest.

Related read: Why Is Water Conservation Important?

2. Integrated pest management 

Integrated pest management, also known as natural pest management, is an approach to pest and weed control that minimizes the application of chemicals. Conventional farm operations don’t improve soil health or facilitate the growth of healthy crops. It is also harmful to humans and wildlife. 

Farm pests include mammals, birds, weeds, mites, insects, and plant diseases. Natural pest management methods include monitoring pest type, species, population, and lifecycle. It helps farmers identify the possible extermination strategy.

It could be biological, mechanical, or cultural methods. They can combine these methods to control pests because it doesn't cause environmental damage. Chemical methods could stunt crops’ natural biological cycles by stripping away soil nutrients. 

Use non-chemical pest control and prevention methods before cultivating, which work best. Avoid stressing the crops because stressed plants are vulnerable to pest infestation. Farmers should be more observant and avoid cultivating infested seeds.

Choose plants that have strong and healthy root systems. Also, spacing out plants can help deter pest distribution, especially when they are different species. They need to practice proper weed management to protect their natural resource base. 

Weeds host many pests like fleas, slugs, thrips, worms, grasshoppers, and ladybugs. So, get rid of weeds before planting and mow new growth regularly.

3. Crop rotation and Polyculture

crop rotation
Photo by Lesław Zimny on Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Polyculture and crop rotation are sustainable farming practices that involve growing multiple crops simultaneously. Crop rotation helps farmers reduce pest infestation of specific plants and improve soil fertility. 

Sustainable agriculture practitioners practice polyculture by planting crops with different nutrient needs and functions. For instance, leguminous plants can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil, while deep-rooted crops improve soil structure. 

Alternating between crops with high nutrient requirements and crops that restore soil nutrients helps prevent nutrient depletion and maintains soil fertility. For instance, planting leguminous crops like soybeans after planting corn restores the soil’s nitrogen and destroys pests like corn rootworms. 

Crop rotation and polyculture also increase the economic profitability of agriculture by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. These sustainable agriculture practices improve soil microbial life. Microorganisms are essential to a successful harvest because they break down organic matter and improve the soil’s water filtration and retention rates. 

They also help reduce the application of pesticides by planting species that may repel pests or attract insects that are pests’ natural predators. It ensures the maintenance of resilient agricultural land.

4. Cover cropping 

Another practice common to the sustainable agriculture community is cover cropping. Cover crops enhance environmental quality in the farming system. They reduce soil erosion, control pests and diseases, and increase harvest by acting as organic fertilizer. 

Sustainable agriculture research shows that cover crops increase crop harvest a year after continuous application. Farmers can gain a 3% increase in corn yield and a 4.9% increase after cover cropping after five years. In 2017, cover crops covered 15.4 million acres and had a 50% increase over five years.

Sustainable agriculture practitioners select green manures based on the problems they want to solve. Different crops reduce erosion, control weeds, manage nutrients, and improve soil fertility. Cover crops that promote soil health are red clover, peas, beans, wheat, mustard, oats, barley, and brassicas.

Cover cropping improved the economic viability of farming operations by spending less on pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. It also protects environmental health from the impacts of pesticides and herbicides.

5. Urban Agriculture  

community garden
Photo by Jiaqian AirplaneFan on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Urban agriculture is a form of sustainable agricultural system introduced to cities to enhance community development and environmental quality. Urban communities feature long stretches of land with concrete and infrastructures, unlike rural communities with farm communities. 

Sustainable practices under urban agriculture include community gardens and farms, commercial farms, and institutional agricultural production, which can also be referred to as green spaces in urban areas.

Community gardens and farms are often on public property and tended by the residents living in the area. It could be a rain garden, green roof, backyard garden, or street landscaping. Non-profit organizations run them to foster community development and create public awareness. 

However, commercial farms are operated by people who want profits from their farm operations. These farms satisfy human food needs in urban areas. It reduces the need to import sustainably produced food from the countryside. Commercial urban farming prefers efficient farming techniques like vertical farming to use space efficiently.

These farms focus on producing expensive and rare plants used in local restaurants and other niche uses. Institutional farms and gardens refer to organic farming in prisons, schools, hospitals, and religious centers. 

Urban sustainable agriculture seeks to improve social and economic equity. It creates a sense of togetherness while generating income. Also, it provides a stable food system and employment opportunities for urban residents. Urban farming improves air and water quality, reduces carbon footprint, and fosters new crop developments.

6. Agroforestry   

agroforestry
Photo by DEFI-Écologique on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

Agroforestry is a land use system that combines various forms of organic agriculture. The agricultural systems are trees and crops, planting trees and rearing livestock, and planting trees with crops and rearing livestock. 

It improves both the environment and the agricultural economy by creating a rich system mimicking the natural ecosystem. For instance, planting perennials with other crops fosters the exchange of organic matter and nutrients among trees, crop plants, pollinators, and bacteria.  

Agroforestry is a part of modern agriculture. According to the database analysis in 2017, there were 14.4 million hectares of European land under agroforestry. Livestock agroforestry covered 15.1 million hectares, and arable agroforestry covered 358,000 hectares.

It is one of the most efficient drought-resistant farming systems. It improves food production, soil structure, fauna, and fertility. Agroforestry allows future generations to meet an integrated system of sustainable practices.  

7. Soil management   

soil and plant
Photo by Adrian Infernus on Unsplash.

Soil management is one of the most crucial parts of sustainable agriculture. Without a healthy soil profile, there is no chance of a secure food system.

The sustainable systems perspective shows that degraded soil leads to practices that aren't environmentally sound. 

Unhealthy soil leads to a low crop yield and increases demand for synthetic products. It also loses its ability to mitigate against climate change. Healthy soils prevent global warming by storing carbon and other greenhouse gases. 

Sustainable agriculture practices like organic composting, cover cropping, and reduced-volume irrigation systems promote soil health. It also involves using natural or integrated protection management to remove diseases, pests, and weeds.

8. Using renewable energy sources  

windmill
Photo by Uta Scholl on Unsplash.

Conventional agriculture uses lots of energy. Farm operations use mechanical tools that require electricity or fuel to power the tools and electricity. Fossil fuels are dangerous for the natural environment. It releases toxic gases and accelerates climate change. 

Fossil fuels are unavoidable in agriculture, but we can reduce its usage. Sustainable agriculture requires switching to renewable energy from the on-farm resources. It could be solar, wind power, hydropower, or biofuels.

Sustainable Agriculture Policies Across The World 

Brazil

Brazil’s history shows that its agricultural economy depends on importation. They had no technology that could improve the terrible soil conditions. Fortunately, the government revised its policies to increase agricultural output. 

Brazil is now one of the countries with the best agricultural yield. However, the country is slowly transitioning to sustainable agriculture. Farmers use deforestation to clear land space and to improve soil structure. It is rapidly destroying Brazil's rainforest ecosystem. 

The Nature Conservancy has been in Brazil since 1988, strategizing ways to protect the environment and improve the economy. Over the decades, the organization has set up sustainable production chains, environmental policies, and economic incentives policies. 

These policies encourage sustainable practices by issuing environmental and social certificates to companies within the economic, social, and environmental standards. It monitors the farm's supply chain to improve production and reduce water footprint.

China 

The agricultural industry is one of China's most active industries. The country provides goods for 22% of the world. In its transition into sustainable agriculture, China has directed research into chemicals, fertilizers, irrigation, genetic modification, and machinery use. 

China increased its productivity and reduced its production costs and labor force. China's sustainable agriculture is a multilayered and multipurpose intensification management system based on Chinese organic farming methods. 

Chinese sustainable agriculture system is based on;

  •  the protection and conservation of natural and human resources,
  • the relationship between the components of the agricultural system and the relationship between its physical and socio-economic environment,
  • and recycling on-farm resources to reduce the cost of production and reduce waste to prevent the impact of agricultural waste. 

China also adopted conservation policies to reduce the impact of agriculture. In 2015, the government issued a strategy integrating internet and information communication technologies with the agricultural value chain to create a sustainable agriculture supply chain.

Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture 

farm field
Photo by Irewolede on Unsplash.

Some benefits of sustainable agriculture are:

  •  Sustainable agriculture prevents pollution. 
  • It saves the cost of farming in the long-term period. 
  • Sustainable agriculture reduces the usage of nonrenewable resources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. 
  • It creates a sustainable food production system, a crucial factor in solving world hunger. 
  • Sustainable agriculture protects biodiversity by preventing habitat loss and fragmentation. 

Conclusion: What Is Sustainable Agriculture?

Every industry requires a sustainable system that doesn’t damage the environment and deplete the natural resource base. The sustainable agriculture continuum involves various policies, methods, and techniques for agricultural activities. 

These practices revolve around returning the nutrients used to the soil to prevent soil degradation and maintain a sustainable supply chain. More farmers should become more sustainable in their agricultural practices. We must protect planet Earth because she’s the source of the food we eat.

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash.
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