When we tell our children what a farm is, we talk about the possibilities with sustainable agriculture without saying the words. We describe a picturesque place that is home to many different animals and land that nurtures a diverse set of crops.
In this scenario the farmer starts the day with the crow of the rooster and provides for his pigs, cows, horses and sheep that are waiting eagerly to be fed. In this idyllic setting, autumn is time for harvest, in winter the land and its inhabitants rest and reset, and in the spring, it is time to start the circle of life and start again with new crops in the ground.
We picture a place where humans and animals live in unity and balance with nature.
Unfortunately, the reality is vastly different. According to the UN, there are currently over 7.8 billion people to feed in the world, with an expected population of over 8.5 billion by 2030.
Over 200 years ago, 90 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms and produced their own food to eat. But today, only two percent of the population produces food for the world to consume.
Changes and advances in the agricultural system have allowed farms to work more efficiently and enable the agricultural sector to produce the outcome needed.
Over a short period of time, innovations in farms’ production practices, risk management, and business arrangements have allowed farmers to greatly increase their output without raising total input use.
But these changes have come at the price of family farms and more sustainable traditional agricultural practices.
Corporate farms vs. family farms
While urban commercial real estate prices have skyrocketed in the past years in cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. so has also the price of farmlands.
When it comes to farming, a small number of large farm operations “produces the vast majority of the nation’s food” according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.
Large farms with over $1 million in sales account for only 4 percent of all farms, but 66 percent of all sales. That’s up considerably from 1 percent of all farms and 50 percent of all sales a decade ago.
However, three quarters of all U.S. farms gross only $50,000 a year and currently account for only 4 percent of product sales.
International food giants dominate virtually every step in the cycle of the global food industry and try to maximize profits.
Large farms are growing the same crops year after year, using enormous amounts of pesticides and fertilizers that damage soils, water, air and climate.
According to studies by the UN and other organizations agriculture contributes around 15 to 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Many people underestimate agriculture’s contribution to the climate crisis and its harmful long-term effects.
It is time for us to find a way to reconnect and raise awareness for our food system and support sustainable agriculture practices that are sufficient enough to meet the demand of our growing population.
Sustainable agriculture is farming in sustainable ways, which means meeting society’s present food and textile needs, without compromising the ability for current or future generations to meet their needs.
These agricultural practices are intended to protect the environment, expand the Earth’s natural resource base, and maintain and improve soil fertility.
Sustainability in agriculture also means dealing fairly with the workers and have a mutually beneficial relationship with the surrounding community.
Environmental sustainability in agriculture involves:
- Building and maintaining healthy soil
- Managing water wisely
- Minimizing air, water and climate pollution
- Promoting biodiversity
Sustainable agricultural practices
1. Rotating crops
Crop rotation is an important technique to keep the soil healthy and avoid depleting it entirely of nutrients. Different crops are planted in different locations over several years in such a way that the succeeding crops helps replenish the nutrients the previous one has taken out of the soil, or vice versa.
2. Planting cover crops
Cover crops are planted during off-season times when soils might otherwise be left bare. These crops protect and build soil health by preventing erosion, replenishing soil nutrients and keeping weeds in check.
3. Integrating livestock and crops
Industrial agriculture mostly keeps plants and animal production separate from each other. Research shows that an integration of crop and animal production can actually make for a more efficient and profitable way of farming.
Does sustainable mean it’s also organic?
“Organic” and “Sustainable” can’t be used as synonyms. There are still some standards in organic farming that are not sustainable, and not all farmers who use sustainable practices qualify for USDA certification or choose to pursue it.
Regenerative agriculture takes sustainability to the next level by not only preserving the land in which food crops are grown but employing farming practices that rebuild soil quality and restore biodiversity on the farm.
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