Sustainable agriculture has a significant role to play in feeding the growing worldwide population and reducing the impact of climate change.
Today, agriculture accounts for up to 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank. The agriculture infrastructure churns out emissions through transportation; the planting, harvesting, and processing of crops; and the production of livestock. That’s not to mention water pollution from pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
Clearly, there’s a need to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment, but at the same time, increase productivity to feed a growing world population. Those who are interested in this challenge and want to learn more about the importance of sustainable agriculture should consider advancing their education in a field such as sustainability.
The Importance of Sustainable Agriculture
The world population is expected to grow from 7.7 billion today to 9 billion by 2050, and, at the same time, agricultural land is being lost to expanding urban areas and climate change. The World Bank estimates that food production will have to increase by 70% by 2050 to make up the difference.
That’s where the importance of sustainable agriculture comes in. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as practices intended to protect the environment, expand Earth’s natural resource base, and maintain and improve soil fertility.
The desired outcomes are to:
- Satisfy human food and fiber needs
- Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends
- Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
- Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
- Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole
Sustainable Agriculture Benefits
Some elemental sustainable agriculture methods can help reduce the environmental impact of farming. Benefits include the following:
- Keeping carbon in the soil. A method called no-till farming maintains carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the air. No-till farming calls for the farmer to leave crop detritus in the field after harvest instead of plowing it under. It can extend to planting, when the farmer drops seed on the ground rather than submerging under the soil surface. It also reduces the number of passes through a field with machinery.
- Reducing the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. The practice of alternating different crops in the same field, called crop rotation, helps keep the soil healthy and productive, developing a mix of nutrients in the soil. This can help reduce the use of fertilizer and chemicals to kill weeds and insects.
- Maintaining pastureland. Rotating grazing livestock from field to field builds up soil from the animals’ manure, boosting the robustness of different pastures since the livestock doesn’t strip one field of its grass. It also enables the soil to store more carbon.
- Reducing fuel consumption. Planting crops that come up every year, called perennials, reduces the number of times farmers must take machinery into the field to plant and apply chemicals.
These basic practices are important for sustainable agriculture because they can be implemented on small farms in the U.S. and other developed nations as well as in agricultural settings in developing countries. The up-front costs are low and the payoff can be realized quickly.
Trends Shaping the Future of Sustainable Agriculture
Farmers, if not early adopters of technology, have been consistent in bringing tech to the field. Today, farmers plow fields with the aid of satellites, get information about their soil from sensors, and manage operations with the aid of sophisticated software.
Farm technologies help make crops more productive by providing more accurate and timely field and weather data, decreasing the need for fertilizers and pesticides, increasing efficiency, and reducing fuel use.
The technologies that are important to sustainable agriculture include the following:
Artificial intelligence (AI) systems analyze data to help farmers determine when and where to plant crops and feed livestock or even when to sell to get the best prices. Data can help farmers apply fertilizers in a more timely and accurate manner. The more farmers know before they grow, the better they can allocate resources and, ultimately, use less chemicals and fuel.
Biotechnology is one of the oldest tools that farmers have for improving crops. Over eons, crossbreeding has produced hardier plants with better yields as well as heftier livestock.
Sophisticated modern methods developed in the lab have decreased the time it takes to crossbreed plants, adding or deleting characteristics to adapt to conditions.
Although these methods are controversial — opponents fear that modified crops could introduce unforeseen and potentially devastating effects — proponents point to how crops can be made more productive and resistant to insects and disease and better able to respond to local conditions, such as more severe droughts or higher amounts of moisture.
The new gene editing CRISPR technology can also be used to increase productivity and disease resistance by altering specific traits.
Farmers continue to find more uses for drones that help them manage crops more efficiently. At first, drones were deployed to spray crops with chemicals. Other emerging uses include taking aerial photos to assess crops and capture data from sensors that can be mined to determine the health of crops as well as weed populations. In some cases, drones drop tree seeds for reforestation projects.
Blockchain technology is commonly associated with the buying and selling of cryptocurrencies, but it has applications in agriculture. Blockchain technology tracks transactions securely and accurately. Using blockchain in agriculture allows for the tracking of ag products from farm to consumer. Agricultural supply chains are already using it to determine where outbreaks of salmonella and other food poisoning causes originated.
Challenges to Building Sustainable Agriculture Strategies
It’s good if one farmer farms sustainably, but it’s better if neighbors do, too, and even better if it’s a regional or national implementation of sustainable agriculture practices.
However, wide adoption of sustainable agriculture runs into obstacles. Farmers compensate for poor growing conditions by applying more chemicals. Even in more productive areas, farmers may feel that the only way to increase production is to add more fertilizer. Perhaps the most obstinate obstacle is that sustainable agriculture tries to change practices that’ve become ingrained over decades, if not centuries.
Wherever an obstacle exists, there’s an opportunity for those in sustainability roles to advocate for and champion sustainable agriculture. Individuals can use their command of sustainability principles and processes to clear roadblocks and help sustainability blossom.
Organizations and agencies in the U.S. and around the world have places for those who understand the importance of sustainable agriculture. They include the following:
- National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NIFA offers loans and grants for projects that boost agricultural yields; improve the efficiency of water and nitrogen use; reduce losses from stresses, diseases, and pests; reduce foodborne diseases; and develop bio-based fuels, chemicals, and coproducts.
- American Farm Bureau Federation. AFBF is a mainstream organization representing farmers and agribusinesses. It provides information about sustainable practices to its members, focusing on “climate smart” farming, carbon markets, renewable energy, and research.
- 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Some 45 nations promised action and investment to protect the environment and move to sustainable farming methods. Pledges to be achieved by 2030 included plans by Brazil to increase its ABC+ low-carbon farming program and plans by Germany to lower emissions from land use by 25 million tons.
- World Bank. The World Bank sponsors sustainable ag projects that affect sustainable transportation, processing, and markets.
- Private sector. The private sector recognizes the importance of sustainable agriculture as well as potential sales and profits. Large multinational companies develop seeds for crops that can grow more efficiently. Startup companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are adapting technology to meet sustainable farming needs, such as making beef and dairy cattle farming more productive and efficient and analyzing soil health.
Help Make the Change That Changes the World
Sustainable agriculture is an important piece of the puzzle of how to feed more people and reduce climate change. Shifting food and fiber production to a sustainable system helps attain both objectives. Sustainable agriculture practices are intended to protect the environment, expand Earth’s natural resources, and maintain and improve soil fertility.
Learn about sustainable agriculture and sustainability tools and strategies in Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Sustainability program. With a core curriculum covering everything from Earth Systems to Understanding Statistical Inference, along with three concentrations (Environmental Science, Business, and Policy), Maryville’s program can provide the knowledge and skills you need to pursue a career in this vital and challenging field.