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What is sustainable agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture is simple, yet hard to define because it is constantly changing.

According to the definition provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), sustainable agriculture refers to an agricultural production and distribution system that integrates natural biological cycles and controls, protects and renews soil fertility, optimizes the management of use of on-farm resources, reduces the use of non-renewable resources and purchased goods, provides an adequate and dependable farm income, promotes opportunity in family farming and farm communities, and minimizes adverse impacts to health, safety, wildlife, water quality and the environment.

Or put more simply, sustainable agriculture is the act of farming using principles of ecology, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. While the first definition is more specific, the main idea behind both definitions of sustainable agriculture is that it is designed to work with the natural ecology and biology present in nature.

The idea of sustainable agriculture has grown in popularity as the apparent repercussions of industrialized farming became more and more evident.

Currently, most meat used in the United States comes from industrialized farms. According to an Environmental Health Perspectives paper published in 2002, industrialized agriculture depletes topsoil nutrients, uses non-renewable resources, increases greenhouse gas emissions, and can disrupt the natural ecology area surrounding the farm. While industrialized agriculture requires a huge amount of fossil fuel, a non-renewable resource, to power and maintain its operations; sustainable agriculture like urban farming, requires a smaller amount of fossil fuel to produce a sizable amount of food.

Localized food production brings food closer to the consumer and makes distributing food less susceptible to rising transportation and energy costs. Sustainable agriculture when applied, is an environmentally friendly alternative to industrialized agriculture.

In Latin the word ‘sustain’ means to keep in existence or to maintain. This earth can only take so much damage, so in order to maintain water quality, avoid pesticide poisoning, and avoid loss of fertile soil, farmers may have to accept the idea of sustainable agriculture where viable.

The negative effects of our current agricultural practices are only going to get worse if continued and future generations will suffer. Implementing this practice could yield more food and also reduce the use of nonrenewable resources, which in turn will increase air quality.

So does that mean that we should eradicate industrial farming right now? Would that act sustainably provide food for everyone of us on this planet? There are many positives to the proposed small scale sustenance farming, but it’s not perfect. Economic policies would have to be put in place in order for sustenance agriculture to work. There is also the matter of the public and need for additional studies to prove the pros and cons.

At the end of the day, consumers are the real decision makers at the end of the food system. Most people do not know about the problems associated with current industrialized agricultural practices, so people may be against the idea of change.

Overall, the benefits of switching from current industrialized practices to the smaller scale sustainable practices appear to outweigh the negatives. Industrialized farming cannot continue for long if the damage it is doing to the environment is real. Change can be hard for people, but if educated about the agricultural benefits of sustainable farming, it’s hard to say it would not be a positive change.

Any forms of “sustainable agriculture”, whether it be a form geared towards large scale industrial or small scale localized production, if it works with the natural ecology and biological cycles in the environment, it is sustainable, isn’t it?

  • Peter

    Sustainable agriculture also benefits the environment by maintaining soil quality, reducing soil degradation and erosion, and saving water. In addition to these benefits, sustainable agriculture also increases biodiversity of the area by providing a variety of organisms with healthy and natural environments to live in.