Sustainable Agriculture: Meeting Current Needs Without Sacrificing Future Needs
Agriculture requires the dedication of many of our natural resources, including land, water, and energy. When the quality and quantity of our natural resources degrades as a result of unsustainable practices, it’s not only the environment that suffers–the viability of future agricultural operations is also put at risk. Sustainable agriculture is founded on the premise that our resources can be carefully managed and cultivated to make them last indefinitely.
And it’s not just natural resources that proponents of sustainable agriculture are focused on; it’s also human resources. Treating workers equitably helps cultivate our social and economic vitality, which can be eroded as easily as environmental health by unfair labor practices–and at enormous cost to our society.
Of course, profitability is also essential to sustainability. Every industry has to make money to subsist. So how do we reconcile the bottom line with the need for ecologically and socially responsible practices? The following are the 5 most important elements of sustainable agriculture.
Protecting Water Quality and Supply
Maintaining water quality and supply is one of the most important elements of sustainable agriculture. Keeping harmful contaminants such as pesticides and nitrates out of the water table helps crop growth and ensures the continued arability of the land.
Carefully managing water consumption is also essential, especially in arid climates where drought is common. Farms can be developed to be drought-resistant by using low-volume irrigation systems, growing drought-tolerant crops and improving water conservation measures. Sometimes suspending growing operations altogether may be the best course of action. The consequences of overdrawing limited surface water supplies in times of drought can be severe, including permanent aquifer collapse and increased salinity.
Sustainable Land Use: Maintaining Wildlife Habitat and Biodiversity
Making sure that farming does not encroach on the natural habitat and biodiversity of a region is another important element of sustainability. The destruction of riparian habitats, in particular, reduces the availability of fish and wildlife, while also doing potentially irreversible harm to the ecosystem. Maintaining the biodiversity of local wildlife can help with pest management, which in the absence of regular predation can get out of control and damage crops. Pollution, the diversion of water, and erosion may also have environmental consequences that undermine future land use.
Renewable Energy Production and Consumption
Many farms and agricultural operations are dependent on non-renewable energy from fossil fuels like coal and petroleum. These resources are finite and cannot be used indefinitely. Using fossil fuels for energy production also causes carbon emissions and contributes to global climate change–which may have catastrophic consequences for agriculture. Transitioning to renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar and biomass is an important step in addressing these concerns, as well as working toward increased energy efficiency. More and more farms are including solar cells and biomass generators for heat and power, reducing the impact of energy production and consumption for agriculture.
Plant and Animal Production Practices
Plant and animal selection are crucial to sustainable agriculture. The wrong combination or an excess of a particular crop or choice of livestock can have devastating effects on the environment that may compromise sustained growth. Carefully managing the effects of cultivating plants and livestock important to ensuring the long-term success of any agricultural endeavor.
That means choosing suitable crop species and livestock as well as diversifying crops, maintaining and enhancing soil quality, and efficient use of non-harmful, ideally renewable chemicals or organics. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainable plant and agriculture production, so it’s important to tailor choices and methods to each specific site and operation.
Labor Practices and Social and Economic Equity
The social and economic costs of inequitable labor practices are enormous. Unfortunately, in the world of agriculture, unfair labor practices are commonplace. By establishing better labor laws and practices, the social and economic impacts of agriculture can be mitigated and the exponentially growing need for more and more public services can be reduced to a sustainable level. Developing rural communities is also an important consideration in this regard. Many are severely impoverished and lack access to adequate employment, healthcare, and education. Working towards sustainable agriculture means addressing the socio-economic ills in these communities to help them thrive and secure their continued vitality.
[photocredit: ETF Trends; GFCNY; How Stuff Works]