Growing food in a way that empowers people, rebuilds the environment and sequesters carbon are just some of the benefits of sustainable agriculture. This term, which used to describe the ethic of organic agriculture, combines cost effective approaches to agriculture with an environmental awareness when choosing and planting food. It combines the concept of “appropriate technology,” which has long been lost in our consumer based economy.
The key to sustainable ag is the term “appropriate,” because it uses the idea that there is a level of “enough,” at the top level of achievement, not the old paradigm of “all I can.” Appropriate technology uses draft horses, water buffalo, even human power to provide some of the brute force used in planting and harvesting. Rather than requiring the purchase of a tractor and fuel and the built in need to replace these things after awhile, appropriate technology uses power sources that can produce their own fuel, compress less soil and can reproduce themselves in time. If the animal cannot be reproduced itself, it provides other resource such as food, thread, chemical amendments to the soil or other useful gifts from that animal.
Sustainable agriculture empowers people to grow their own food, and perhaps raise enough to bring financial income to the family, without the use of middlemen which lower the amount of income the farmer receives. It also builds the sense of community as people have accountability for that which they grow, and their neighbors see the benefits of healthy, available food from a nearby community member.
Planting crops and raising animals on grazing rather than grain, actually allows carbon to remain in the soil. When soil is tilled repeatedly with carbon-fueled machines, a great deal of carbon is released into the air, contributing to the Greenhouse Effect. Using tractors when needed, but with low or no till practices, using draft animals, and crop rotation, soil is able to hold on to the carbon and it is used in growing food which is then returned to the soil when it is tilled in.
As we see water levels rise from climate change, the amount of agricultural run off will increase, due to the practices used in intensive industrial agriculture. Sustainable practices work with the contours of the land to hold the water on the soil for longer periods of time, planting crops that can take up appropriate amounts of water and survive flood waters, making it possible for the land to remain productive, even in wetter times. This effects land and water down stream, which has seen massive “die off,” from the collected run off. This is seen in the Mississippi Delta as the “Dead Zone,” continues to collect fertilizers and other agricultural residues applied in the Midwestern grain belt.
Finally, as we see development worldwide take up the tillable soil, the source of tillable land disappears. Whenever a new building is built, the nutrient cycle which cleans the air, builds the soil and grows our food, is disrupted. And because that disruption often brings increased automobile traffic, soil compaction, erosion and loss of ecological productivity, the damage done is magnified.
Sustainable agriculture is much more than simply growing food. It does indeed grow the potential for a future. As people rediscover these techniques that were practiced for centuries, and those techniques are combined with more scientific knowledge, the potential for farming to help heal the planet and nurture the soul and economy of its people, grows along with it. We just have to make it possible for these skills to be taught, and the land needs to be affordable and used, so that more farms can grow, enhancing the Earth, both locally and globally.