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Sustainable agriculture prioritizes natural resources and healthy soils but because the label is not well-regulated, any farm can call itself "sustainable."
Words by Clara Dell
Sustainable agriculture is an approach to farming that prioritizes natural and renewable resources over synthetic inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization sustainable agriculture seeks to “meet the needs of present and future generations, while ensuring profitability, environmental health, and social and economic equity.” But because there’s little regulatory oversight for this practice, farms can call themselves “sustainable” without having to back it up.
While conventional agriculture places significant pressures on the environment, sustainable agriculture is characterized by its ambition to do the opposite.
According to the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, sustainable agriculture aims to protect the environment, maintain soil fertility and even expand our natural resource base. It lists the main goals of sustainable agriculture as 1) economic profitability for farmers, 2) the promotion of environmental stewardship, and 3) increased welfare for farmers, their communities, and their animals, all while producing enough to meet the food needs of humans.
As the effects of climate change and environmental damage accelerate, food systems research suggests that preserving our natural resources, including our capacity to grow food, is of the utmost importance. Sustainable agriculture aims to produce adequate short-term yields without inflicting long-term harm on the environment.
The tenets of sustainable agriculture also do not support housing animals in factory farms — concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that house upward of 1,000 animals in tight quarters — due to the detrimental impacts that these operations can have on the environment and public health.
However, the label “sustainable” is not well-regulated by governments, so there’s generally no way to know if a farm that calls itself sustainable is actually following all or any of the tenets of this farming philosophy.
Sustainable agriculture practices generally aim to maintain the health and longevity of farmland.
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 habitats and food sources.
Integrated Pest Management is a strategic approach to pest control that relies on a combination of methods including biological controls like natural parasites and chemical pesticides. Examples include the introduction of natural predators to control parasites, using disease-resistant plants, growing healthy crops that are strong enough to withstand pests or even incorporating plants nearby specifically to attract pests away from crops.
Many farms that identify with the sustainable agriculture approach use the same land to raise livestock and grow crops. Livestock integration can reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, as animal manure provides nutrients to the plants. However, grazing cattle also comes with environmental downsides, ecologists find, including increased climate emissions and destruction of wildlife and biodiversity.
Another sustainable agriculture technique is to use the entirety of the land, including less intensively cultivated or even uncultivated areas. Natural vegetation or prairie plants, for example, can help support the quality of soil as well as local wildlife. However, farmland expansion, especially grazing livestock, tends to increase deforestation and degradation of wild landscapes, and adds to biodiversity loss.
Cover crops are planted in rotation with other crops to help prevent erosion and enrich the soil. Some evidence from application in the U.S. suggests that cover cropping may be slightly lowering yields at present. Cover crops can help reduce the need for artificial pesticides by helping to control pests and smother weeds.
Tillage is the practice of disturbing soil in preparation for planting and can be done by stirring, digging or overturning the soil. Reducing tillage decreases soil erosion while improving soil health and water quality.
Crop rotation refers to growing different types of crops in a single field one after the other. This helps to boost the biodiversity of soil, which benefits soil health and productivity and could ultimately lead to increased profitability or help safeguard against farm losses.
Sustainable agriculture can encompass many different practices, all with different emphases and methods. However, these various techniques share the core purpose of aiming to be more environmentally responsible than industrial farming. Again, because the term is not regulated, farms that use this label may or may not be following through with the practices.
In the U.S., however, organic agriculture is regulated. For an agricultural system to be certified organic, farmers must abide by the standards of the National Organic Program of the USDA, which regulates the pesticides and fertilizers that can be used, almost none of which can be synthetic.
Regenerative agriculture attempts to reverse the degradation of farmland and soil, and typically integrate livestock into a farm. However, the term has many different meanings and has become more common as a marketing term on supermarket labels. Climate researchers have suggested the evidence does not support the claim that regenerative agriculture can reduce climate emissions.
Permaculture is a system that strives for coexistence between all natural elements, including people, animals and the wider environment. Permaculture can be used in a variety of settings, including urban, suburban and rural.
Over the last century, industrial agriculture has increasingly dominated food production in the United States. Large-scale agriculture is characterized by its use of large tracts of land, maximized efficiency and high yields, extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides and farm animals raised in CAFOs. In addition, most crops grown in the industrial system go to feed animals or become biofuel rather than feed humans.
While industrial agriculture provides large amounts of food, it is not without its problems. This system has far-reaching consequences for farmed animals, workers and surrounding communities.
Industrial agriculture is a driving force behind water pollution, soil degradation and air pollution. The animals housed in CAFOs produce over 1 billion tons of manure every year in the United States alone — five times more than the U.S. human population.
In addition to its impacts on water quality and safety, 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 — when inhaled they can cause severe illnesses including chronic bronchitis, chronic lung disease or 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 methane emissions, which is 27 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas over 100 years.
Crops grown on industrial farms are primarily corn, soy, wheat and cotton. These subsidized crops primarily go to animal feed, biofuels and, to a lesser degree, ultra-processed food, which are a contributor to obesity and poor health.
Farm animals on CAFOs are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease, because the close quarters that are the hallmark of factory farms increase the likelihood of illness. The use of antibiotics in animal feed has been linked to an increase in antibiotic resistant genes whose spread has led to a reduction in the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating sick people.
Industrial agriculture can also be harmful to those who work in the sector. Farmworkers commonly experience increased exposure to toxic pesticides, pathogens and fumes. Additionally, these workers rarely make above minimum wage and have little access to healthcare.
The primary argument in favor of industrial agriculture is that it is the most efficient way to produce large amounts of food quickly and cheaply. The downside is that when farmers and producers prioritize high yields over everything else, they are far less likely to consider how farming methods impact soil health, wildlife and livestock animals.
Farms that practice sustainable agriculture tend to prioritize soil health and minimal synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Many farms that practice sustainable agriculture aim to give livestock additional space and house them in smaller groups. Group size can positively affect social behavior, which can improve interactions between animals and between animals and workers.
Local wildlife populations can also benefit, as food cultivated without the use of fertilizers and pesticides can protect pollinators. Farms that properly apply and manage manure reduce water and air pollution in surrounding communities.
However, again, as sustainable agriculture is not well-regulated, consumers should not assume that animals raised on a “sustainable” farm are well-treated.
Limiting and managing use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers helps protect the surrounding environment. More diverse crops can help reduce erosion and restore nutrients to soils that have been depleted by industrial practices.
Local Economies and Workers
Those who are employed in sustainable agriculture typically experience safer and less strenuous working conditions and overall better welfare. Sustainable agriculture’s emphasis on diversified yields can also translate to higher profits, which typically means better incomes for all involved.
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, from labor to native species.
Industrial farms raise animals in tight quarters, conditions that increase the likelihood of disease and the risk of future pandemics. Many industrial farms routinely use antibiotics to speed animal growth and prevent disease.
Farms that practice sustainable agriculture aim to avoid using antibiotics preventatively. However, there is typically no oversight for farms that hold themselves out as “sustainable,” so little to no checks to confirm antibiotic use.
Every five years or so, Congress passes the Farm Bill, a multi-year law which is the primary source of policy related to farming. Most recently passed in 2018 and expiring in 2023, the Farm Bill provides a mix of support for industrial and sustainable farmers, although more funding is awarded to certain commodity crops produced at scale, notably corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice.
The Farm Bill also provides for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program, which provide financial and technical assistance to farms, including industrial farms, that use sustainable methods and conservation for land, water, air and soil quality. However, the total budget for these programs is only a small fraction of the total Farm Bill package.
The global food system must figure out how to produce enough food for the close to 10 billion people that will populate the planet by the year 2050. Over the past century or so, the food system has been able to produce more food with industrialization — becoming more efficient but also expanding farmland into forest and other wild landscapes. That pattern has created massive greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and pollution and, if it continues, will add to climate pollution in ways that make the earth uninhabitable for the most vulnerable populations.
One of the most impactful things you can do is eat less meat by shifting to a plant-rich diet. By eating more plants on your plate, you help support a more resource-efficient food system that will need much less land, water and emissions to feed the planet. For more information, see our Take Action page.
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