You’ve likely heard people talking about it. Indeed, as the world has become more attuned to the reality of climate change, “sustainable agriculture” has even become something of a buzzword.
But the concept is far more than a trendy phrase. It has deep roots – and real potential to help farmers, and consumers, participate in a truly ecological system.
So what, exactly, is sustainable agriculture?
The idea behind the concept focuses on longevity: It presents the argument that it’s equally as important for this generation to flourish as it is for future generations to have the ability to meet their own needs. And in order to help achieve that goal, sustainable agriculture focuses primarily on the concept of stewardship.
We, the people of the present generation, are only temporary using this planet, the philosophy goes, so it implores us to act not as developers and dominators of the land but rather as stewards of a shared and inherited resource.
Many mix up the idea of sustainable agriculture with that of a sustainable food system, or use the two phrases as synonyms. And while both promote the health of both the planet and its people for generations to come, food systems incorporate a more expansive view, roping in considerations around managing human-made resources as well, such as the creation of a sustainable economy to support a sustainable farming system.
The goal of sustainable agriculture in itself is a little more narrow, focusing solely on what can be done from a land-management point of view – and to that end, farmers have been busy perfecting planting methods that not only allow our generation to eat but will leave the earth in good measure for generations to come.
The tenets of sustainable agriculture combine a number of farming strategies to use the current resources available to us as efficiently as possible, and to leave the natural systems that produce them as healthy as possible, so they can continue producing the cleanest resources possible far into the future.
Specifically, some of these strategies include:
One of the most precious natural resources of all – especially when it comes to maintaining farms – water is at the core of many sustainable agriculture strategies. And it’s imperative this resource not only remains abundant but as clean as possible in order for human life to continue.
Most aspects of water management center around water conservation, including ideas like reduced-volume irrigation systems, planting crops to reduce water loss, or promoting the planting of draught-tolerant crop species.
Still, many other areas of water management revolve around maintaining water quality, with many of the concepts focused on fighting the contamination and salinization of ground water. Again, clever natural tricks can be used to help seep the toxins out of the ground – or at the very least, help contain their spread.
Another crucial aspect for growing food is soil health, with the farming value of the dirt actually coming in anything but cheap.
Healthy soil is essential for the continued growth of not just healthy crops but other types of plants that add to the overall biodiversity which works to strengthen the planet overall. That’s because many plants absorb their vital minerals and nutrients directly from the dirt, using whatever it has to offer to grow to their fullest potential.
Once soil that has been toxified, bringing it back to health can be a tricky process; occasionally, farmland must be abandoned all together if its soil has become too badly damaged.
To avoid facing that circumstance, sustainable farmers employ a number of tactics, including crop-rotation and the creation of more biodiverse agroecosystems, or, the types of ecosystems that are cultivated specifically by humans.
Lower pollution levels are of course good all around, but there are a few ways farmers can target these issues through sustainable agriculture strategies.
When it comes to ground pollution, a number of tactics are employed to both prevent pollutants from entering the fragile ecosystem and to mitigate their effects. Planting the right kind of crops to keep soil revived – and free of too many toxins – once again comes into play, as well as creating a more biodiverse plot of land that may reduce the need to rely on synthetic fertilizers.
And when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions – a notorious issue in the agriculture world – sustainable farmers are also employing a number of creative strategies to try to minimize their footprint. This can look like anything from creating small collectives to move larger shipments at once – thereby reducing the number of fossil fuel-based vehicles needed to move the food – to partnering within the local community to help the food make an even bigger impact closer to where it’s grown.
Still, perhaps the best way to manage natural resources is to let nature do the lion’s share of the work.
Constructing a farm that’s built around the philosophy of permaculture – that is, a self-contained system that is essentially self-sustainable and fully regenerative – is the best way to let nature take care of itself.
Of course, the creation itself does take some human planning.
Permaculture relies heavily on deep agricultural knowledge, with the ultimate goal looking something like a well-balanced ecosystem, with every facet working together to create something that’s stronger than the sum of its parts. A system designed in this way will include a biodiverse range of plants that work together to keep the soil healthy and wet – but not too wet, attract all the right kind of pollinators while naturally repelling pests, and rely on little-if-any synthetic materials.
Essentially, it represents the ultimate goal of sustainable agriculture: Creating something even Mother Nature herself would be proud of.
It may be a lofty ideal, but it’s the best way to ensure the planet can keep giving the best of itself for generations to come.