Sustainable agriculture seeks to strike a balance between “a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.” All stakeholders in the agriculture industry, from producer to final consumer, have a role to play in contributing to a sustainable future in the agricultural sector.
COVID-19 shone a spotlight on the vulnerabilities of the agriculture sector. For example, farm labor is often challenging to locate, and it was practically non-existent during the pandemic. Many farmers did not have adequate resources alone.
Lockdowns contributed to food scarcity and increased food insecurity.
One of the goals of sustainable agriculture is to build resilience in the system. Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental tenets of sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable Agriculture Explained
Sustainable agriculture’s goal is to provide agricultural products while protecting and nurturing the earth for future generations. It strikes a balance between the needs of consumers, workers, producers and retailers while engaging in practices that protect and sustain the environment.
Sustainable agriculture considers the full ecosystem, human, environmental and economic to develop strategies that balance the sometimes competing and conflicting priorities. It considers both short and long-term implications and solutions to reach optimal strategies.
Key Stakeholders in Sustainable Agriculture
There are a number of key stakeholders in a sustainable agriculture system, each with a fundamental role to play. Each contributes to the greater system.
Food producers are at the core of sustainable agriculture from a multi-generation family farm to a large-scale commercial operation. While farmers are stewards of the land, some traditional agricultural practices have harmed the land and resources, and sustainable agriculture requires a change in thinking and stewardship.
Soil and Water Management
For example, traditional farming used raw livestock manure on the fields to use as fertilizer. There are many benefits to using manure as fertilizer, such as lower costs for commercial fertilizer, adding nutrients such as calcium, sulfur, magnesium and other micronutrients into the soil, and improving animal health by removing the manure from the animal’s environment.
However, raw manure also can contain antibiotics used in animal care, and diseases such as salmonella, e.Coli and listeria, and which can leech into the soil, and contaminate food. In addition, excess runoff can contaminate water sources and groundwater supplies, kill aquatic life and spread downstream to other locations or into local or municipal water supplies.
Water resource management is a constant concern. Crops and animals require many gallons of water, and if there is insufficient rainfall, then farmers turn to irrigation, which can drain water sources, creating water scarcity issues.
Soil and crop management work in tandem with water resource management. Soil can become depleted of nutrients, resulting in poor yield, decreased resistance to pests and disease and increased strain on both the farmer and the food industry. Strategies such as crop rotation, biodiversity practices such as pollinator gardens and companion planting to boost water retention and pest prevention can reduce soil erosion and protect the environment and the watershed.
Another issue with manure is air quality. Excrement stinks, and some animals’ manure is worse than others. Anyone who has been on the wrong side of a breezy day downwind of pigs or chicken understand that air quality can be compromised.
Improper ventilation can lead to a build-up of toxic gases, which pose a health risk for both humans and animals, it can increase the risk of fire or explosion, and lack of air circulation can increase mould and rot.
While regulators play an important role in fostering sustainable agriculture, defining that role can be challenging due to the different interests and levels of government involved.
- Pass regulations to ensure safe food production, water management and air and soil quality
- Create grants and fund research to support sustainable agriculture research and innovation
- Mandate a living wage for farm laborers
- Pass regulations for waste and wastewater management
- Partner with industry to innovate, reduce packaging and support sustainable agriculture initiatives globally
- Support farmers with farm labor programs, grants and low-interest loans for innovation such as solar or wind energy.
If food producers are the beginning of the sustainable agriculture cycle, then consumers are at the other end and can influence the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices.
Consumers can insist on safe food choices free of pesticides, fertilizers, and growth hormones and make choices to purchase organic and fair trade foods, pressure retailers to reduce or eliminate excess packaging and purchase from local food producers. They can pressure regulators to adopt measures that support sustainable agriculture initiatives.
Both food producers and consumers benefit from sustainable agriculture policies. Sustainable agriculture looks to balance today’s needs with tomorrow’s requirements and balance the use of the resource. Sustainable agriculture can reduce food scarcity and improve the quality of the food available.
Sustainable agriculture practices look at both the here and now and the future. The goal of sustainable agriculture is to manage the resources so that the earth can continue to provide food and resources for many years to come while protecting the soil, water and air.
Food producers, regulators and consumers each have a role to play to support sustainable agriculture initiatives. Consumers can have the most significant impact by pressuring regulators to support sustainable agriculture initiatives and vote with their wallets to support food producers who are acting as responsible stewards of the land. We only have one planet, after all.