Sustainable agriculture is a concept that has been evolving and growing for the last 20 plus years, although usually less in the public eye than organic farming. As our knowledge and understanding of nature’s ecology has developed we have become more aware of the environmental systems, cycles and flows of our planet. We are realizing that our actions, as we have advanced technologically, can have detrimental impacts not only on the natural environment of our world but may risk our own continuance upon it. Sustainable agriculture can reasonably be described as a philosophy, a world view that recognizes and is concerned about future as well as present food production. Unlike the better known organic farming and the relatively recent conservation agriculture, sustainable agriculture imposes no constraints on its practitioners, it is all about transitioning towards more sustainable practices rather than defining what is not allowed.
It is a philosophy that focuses on three fundamental but interconnected areas, applied to agriculture: maintaining the environment, both our agricultural environment and the more natural one surrounding it; economic profitability, producing food both now and in the future at the lowest practicable cost; and social equity, maintaining rural human communities in a fair and just balance. It is an inclusive philosophy; the participation of all aspects of human society is desired and encouraged, from farm managers and workers through scientific researchers and government to retailers and consumers.
The legitimate proponents and advocates of sustainable agriculture have no wish to impose methodologies or practices on those owning, managing or working in the agricultural field. Instead, as the socioeconomic benefits of sustainable agriculture over the conventional agriculture that developed post-World War II become more readily apparent, it is hoped that most will readily embrace the philosophy. If not from environmental and social concern, then because doing so will become more financially rewarding for them.
The aspects of sustainable agriculture cover a wide ranging field of disiplines, including:
Hydrology: maximizing crop yields while reducing water supply demands, as well as improving clean water supply and storage methodologies.
Air purity: reducing the airborne effects in surrounding areas resulting from conventional farming practices such as burn offs of harvested fields and for land clearance, dust clouds from field tillage and harvesting, pesticide drift resulting from conventional application methods, and nitrous oxide emissions resulting from the large scale use of nitrate fertilizers.
Soil health: Reducing topsoil loss or soil erosion, as well as maintaining soil vitality through the use of cover plants or mulch, and a return to crop rotation systems and farm animal grazing that was sustainably used for centuries in the past simply because it worked; supported now by the current scientific understanding of the environmental processes involved.
Epidemiology: investigating and understanding the ecology of plant parasites and pathogens (disease causing microbes) native to specific geographical regions and, more importantly, the spread of those alien to a region that have arrived predominantly via human transportation, and have the potential to devastate local agriculture due to the lack of the natural predators, parasites and pathogens that would hold them in check in their native environments.
Plant health: meeting the ecological needs of crop plants to minimize their vulnerability to plant parasites and pathogens.
Plant selection: matching plant types and strains to the abiotic and climatic conditions of a region, so that plant productivity is maximized rather than minimized by the farming of plants unsuited to the region’s environmental conditions.
Agricultural supplements: maximizing production while minimizing the use of fertilisers, by understanding crop requirements, local abiotic conditions and how best to support and improve soil conditions using locally available natural fertilizers and resources.
Livestock management: utilizing grazing animals to enhance a farm’s ecology. This includes appropriate species and breed selection, monitoring and maintaining herd health, and controlling the movement and location of livestock.
Rural community dynamics: revitalizing rural communities through the diversification of local agricultural parameters, such as crop types on family farms, and encouraging the procurement of necessary services on a local basis. As well as seeking and encouraging local input on all policy making affecting the regional locale.
Legislation: modifying local, state and federal/national legislation to allow rather than inhibit sustainable agriculture methodologies and practices.
Consumer choice: Providing education and information to the public that allows an informed choice when purchasing agricultural products, thus providing farm owners with economical encouragement to transition towards sustainable practices.
The movement from conventional agriculture to sustainable agriculture is occurring, the future viability of food production depends upon it. But it is a slow, transitional process, controlled by each individual farm owner or manager, so as to maintain farm production and minimize any economic and/or social costs for the individual and their surrounding community. Sustainable agriculture is not an ideology being imposed, it is a philosophy that is being recognized, appreciated and taken up by an ever increasing number of people intimately involved in the agricultural sector and beyond.