Sustainable agriculture is a broadbased concept rather than a specific methodology. It encompasses agricultural management practices and philosophies, the sociodynamics of rural communities, our greater understanding of ecology, increased public environmental and food quality concerns, advances in agricultural methods and technology, and the growing recognition that the conventional agriculture that developed post-World War II will not be able to meet the needs of the growing world population in the 21st Century.
Conventional agriculture is experiencing either reduced production or increased costs, often both. Farming monocultures, such as wheat fields, repeatedly on the same land results in the loss of topsoil, soil vitality, groundwater purity and beneficial microbial and insect life; weakening the crop plants and making them vulnerable to increasing numbers of parasites and pathogens (disease causing microbes). An ever increasing amount of fertilizers and pesticides are required as well as increased energy requirements for tilling to aerate the soils and increasing irrigation costs as suitable water becomes in short supply. While conventional methods enabled large increases in production yield, and thus high profits, initially, these practices failed to consider the future.
The steady increase in corporate farming using conventional methods in the last few decades, primarily profit-driven, has increased the destabilization of rural communities as well as speeding up the detrimental effects on both the farmland ecology and neighboring natural environments. Cost cutting efforts have frequently targeted farm workers; financial recompense for work performed has degraded significantly in comparison to other areas of human endeavor. This not only decreases their own standards of living but has a flow on effect impacting the economic viability of small, rural towns.
Expansion of urban population centers, and business and industrial complexes, is reducing available farmland. The location of much of the world’s primary and best quality farmland is in areas that are steadily becoming prime real estate for top end residential properties. In economic terms, farming simply cannot compete. The profits from transforming the farmland into residential sub-divisions are astronomically higher than those achievable from farming it by any method.
Although the world’s population growth has slowed, it is still increasing. That population expansion and increasing desertification in some parts of the world, due to over-grazing by livestock and the effects of climate change, means that we will need to produce more food from less land this century. The serious state of depletion in commercial fish stocks in the world’s seas makes this even more necessary. Conventional methods are struggling to maintain current production levels, and are generally considered to be failing to do that. They are clearly not the answer to our future needs.
Sustainable agriculture is about increasing production and profitability by utilizing the ecology, working with it rather than against it, to provide us with food both now and into the future. It’s about enabling rural populations, breathing new life and promise into struggling and stressed communities. It takes a systems-based approach that recognizes how all things are interconnected and gets ideas and input from farm managers, farm workers, scientists, researchers, government officials, retailers and consumers. It is not constrained by ideologies beyond that of recognizing our utilization of farmland must be sustainable, enabling the land to produce in the future as well as now.
Sustainable agriculture is vitally important in today’s world because it offers the potential to meet our future agricultural needs, something that conventional agriculture will not be able to do.
(For more information on sustainable agriculture please see the articles under Helium’s title “Sustainable agriculture explained.”)