Can Sustainable Agriculture Fix the Broken Food System?

sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture serves as a much-needed alternative to the industrial farming practices that have been employed in the United States for decades. These methods, which include repeatedly planting the same crop on one plot of land and encouraging growth through the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, have long been seen as the only way to meet the growing demand for food in the United States while also being profitable for farmers. Sustainable agriculture provides proof that agriculture can remain worthwhile to the farmer while causing no harm to the natural world and its inhabitants, and in some cases even benefiting them. 

What Is Sustainable Agriculture? 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, sustainable agriculture is intended to protect the environment, maintain soil fertility, and even expand the natural resource base of the earth. The three main goals of sustainable agriculture are economic profitability for farmers; the promotion of environmental stewardship; and an increase in welfare for farmers, their communities, and their animals while producing enough to meet the needs of humans. 

Why Is Sustainable Agriculture So Important? 

Sustainable agricultural methods provide the means by which humans can meet our needs without harming the environment. This is important not only for us and our continued enjoyment of nature and natural resources but also for the animals with which we share our space. Sustainable agriculture does not support the housing of animals in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that house upwards of 1000 animals in tight quarters, due to the detrimental impacts that these operations can have on the environment and public health. By moving toward more sustainable agriculture the welfare of both humans and animals can be improved. 

What Is Alternative Agriculture? 

Alternative agriculture, a subset of sustainable agriculture, consists of several different methods including organic agriculture, regenerative agriculture, and permaculture. These farming techniques share the core purpose of reducing, and eventually eliminating, the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers. Like sustainable agriculture, these methods aim to be more environmentally responsible than industrial farming. 

Organic Agriculture

For food to be considered organic, no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers can be used in its production. Farmers must abide by the standards set forth by the National Organic Program of the USDA, which regulates the pesticides and fertilizers that can be used. With pesticides being one of the leading causes of death for wild pollinators such as bees, organic farming practices provide an alternative practice. 

Regenerative Agriculture 

Regenerative agriculture focuses on reversing the degradation of farmland and soil, partly as a means of lessening climate change. The methods used also work to restore the biodiversity of soil, in recognition that soil is the most biologically diverse part of the earth. 

Permaculture

Permaculture is a system in which all the parts, including people, animals, natural resources, the land, and the wider environment can coexist permanently. It is modeled after the natural world’s ability to thrive via no-waste systems and can be used in urban, suburban, or rural settings. 

Sustainable Agriculture Versus Industrial Agriculture 

Industrial agriculture has dominated food production in the United States since the industrial revolution. It is characterized by large tracts of land planted with one crop, extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides, animals being held in CAFOs, and an emphasis on a select few crops that are used for animal feed and the production of processed foods. 

The Impacts of Industrial Agriculture 

Industrial agriculture has far-reaching consequences relating not only to the environment and animal welfare but also to community welfare. 

Environmental Impacts

Industrial agriculture is a driving force behind water pollution, soil degradation, and air pollution. The animals housed in CAFOs produce tons of manure every year which is either stored or applied to fields as a fertilizer. This manure is exceptionally high in phosphorus which seeps into the groundwater.

Once this phosphorus makes its way to the sea, it encourages the overgrowth of algae that can release toxins that are dangerous for animals, people, and the ecosystem overall. This algal overgrowth reduces the oxygen in the water and causes the death of fish and marine life. One such algal bloom in Florida, which lasted from 2017 to 2018, resulted in the death of thousands of marine animals including sea turtles, fish, manatees, birds, and dolphins. 

In addition to its impacts on water quality and safety, the manure produced from industrial animal rearing is one of the primary contributors to air pollution. As the manure breaks down it releases several toxins including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter. These substances are released into the air and, when breathed in, can cause severe illnesses including chronic bronchitis and chronic lung disease, and even death.

Beyond these obvious dangers to public health, manure also drives climate change, and its management is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a leading source of emissions of methane, which is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. 

Public Health

Due to subsidies provided by the U.S. government, the crops grown on industrial farms are primarily corn, soy, wheat, and cotton. Subsidized crops can be found on the label of virtually every processed food, and contribute to the continued dominance of junk foods in the United States that cause obesity and poor health. 

Antibiotics are given to animals on CAFOs as part of preventive healthcare because the close quarters they have kept in increase the likelihood of illness. The use of antibiotics in animal feed has been linked to an increase in antibiotic resistance in microbes and consequently a reduction in the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating sick people. This is because the antibiotics given to animals are extremely similar to those used to treat humans. 

The Myth of Efficiency 

The primary argument in favor of industrial agriculture is that it is more efficient than sustainable methods of production. Yet there are reasons to think this is not true. A 2007 study found that levels of global food production could be maintained on the same amount of land using organic methods. 

Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture

Animal Welfare

Wildlife: Cultivating food without the use of fertilizers and pesticides reduces the number of pollinators being killed by these chemicals. Less manure makes its way into the water system, reducing the impact on marine life.

Antibiotic Use: Antibiotic use is limited to the treatment of illness. Farmed animals are not given unnecessary antibiotics, and farmers are more likely to give them additional space in order to reduce disease transmission.

Environment

Pesticides and Fertilizers: The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers is limited. Less of these dangerous chemicals are introduced into the environment. 

Soil Biodiversity: Sustainable methods of agriculture help to restore the nutrients to the soil that are stripped by industrial agriculture practices. 

Reduced Demand for Non-renewable Energy: Farms that use sustainable practices use renewable energy sources as part of the core goal of producing products more sustainably. 

Local Economies and Workers 

Improved Work Environment: Better welfare for animals means better welfare for workers, including a safer, less strenuous work environment. 

Localization: Sustainable methods of production are more likely to support and rely on the local economy. Farms are no longer purchasing products, such as fertilizers and pesticides, from outside their communities, and instead are relying more heavily on local resources such as labor. 

Public Health

Antibiotic Resistance: Because antibiotics are not used for preventive medicine in sustainable agriculture, implementing sustainable methods of production increases the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating people. 

Pandemics: Industrial agriculture, in which animals are kept in tight quarters, is a driver of disease. The conditions of animals on these farms provide the ideal environment for the spread of disease from animals to people. 

What Makes Agriculture Sustainable? 

There are a number of agriculture practices that can be implemented to support the sustainable production of food. 

Adopting Agroforestry Practices

Agroforestry is the practice of integrating trees into fields used for crop production or livestock. The benefits of agroforestry include controlling erosion, providing shade and protection from the wind, and supporting local wildlife. 

Applying Integrated Pest Management (IPM) 

IPM is a collection of tactics for pest control that rejects the use of chemical pesticides, instead focusing on natural methods of control and prevention. Examples include planting crops that are adapted to the area, or the introduction of natural predators to control parasites. 

Integrating Livestock and Crops 

Using the same land to raise livestock and crops reduces the need for fertilizers, as the manure from the cattle provides nutrients to the plants. This practice also helps control soil erosion and has no impact on crop yield. 

Managing Whole Systems and Landscapes 

Taking a whole-farm system approach to agriculture balances natural resources, agricultural pursuits, profit, and public responsibility. Whole-farm methods support the quality of soil and water as well as local wildlife. 

Planting Cover Crops 

Cover crops are crops that are planted to increase the quality of soil, smother weeds, enhance water availability, help to control pests, and slow erosion. They are planted in rotation with other crops and provide a much-needed break to land that can lead to increased yield and the attraction of additional pollinators. 

Reducing Tillage 

Tillage is the practice of upsetting soil in preparation for planting. It can be done by stirring, digging, or overturning the soil. Reducing tillage decreases soil erosion, improves water quality, and increases soil health. 

Rotating Crops and Increasing Diversity 

Rotating what is planted in a field with a diverse array of crops boosts the biodiversity of soil which benefits soil health and productivity. 

Sustainable Agriculture and Farm Policy 

Periodically, Congress passes the Farm Bill, which is the primary source of policy related to farming. Though the Farm Bill provides a mix of support for industrial and sustainable farmers, more funding is provided to support industrial methods through subsidies of certain products, notably wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, dairy, and cotton. These subsidies amount to $20 billion a year and lead to a lack of diversity in planting as well as the use of vast plots of land for the sole purpose of growing these crops. 

The Farm Bill also provides for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program which provide financial and technical assistance to farms that use sustainable methods that encourage improved water, air, and soil quality. The total budget for these programs is less than $5 billion. 

What Are the Current Greatest Threats to Agricultural Sustainability? 

Public Policy: One of the greatest threats to the viability of sustainable agriculture is the subsidies provided to farms that use industrial practices to grow massive amounts of a single crop. These subsidies encourage farms to continue using industrial practices with little regard to the impacts on public health, the ecosystem, or animal welfare. 

Demand: Another primary threat to agricultural sustainability is the demand for industrially grown crops. These crops are those that tend to be found in grocery stores and are shipped across states or even countries to be easily accessible. 

How You Can Help

One of the most impactful things that you can do to support sustainable agriculture is to shop locally. Farms that are locally owned and operated tend to use more sustainable methods. Instead of purchasing produce from a chain grocery store, visit a farmer’s market or stand. By choosing to shop locally, you are helping to increase demand for sustainably grown products and supporting the farmers that use these methods so that they can continue production. 

Towards a Sustainable Future

The persistence of industrial methods of agriculture is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of people, animals, and the environment. Sustainable methods of production provide a necessary alternative that is more responsible economically, environmentally, and ethically, and is better for animals, people, and the planet.