October 16, 2020
Adequate nutrition from high-quality food sources is essential for health. However, with global populations on the rise, keeping up with the increased demand for bountiful harvests presents challenges to current agricultural methods. To meet these challenges, many modern farmers are adopting sustainable agricultural practices, and they are doing so with outstanding ecological results.
Sustainable agriculture may be the future of farming, so what is it? Sustainable agriculture is a collection of farming techniques which preserves the land for future use. In much the same way recycling prevents unnecessary waste and conserves resources, sustainable agricultural methods allow for the reuse of farmland for future generations.
In recent years, it's become clear that many modern industrial farming practices are harmful to the planet. Constantly overworking the soil with practices like mono-cropping, using artificial fertilizers, and irresponsible tilling techniques, all rob the soil of its nutrients and vitality. Sustainable agriculture mitigates the footprint humans have on native soils and keeps them viable for the subsequent years to come. With populations growing exponentially, it's imperative to use sustainable practices in order to avoid widespread crop failures and famines that lead to undernourishment.
All farming techniques have their pros and cons, and sustainable agriculture is no different. However, the positive aspects of sustainable agriculture practices outweigh its limitations.
A beneficial characteristic of sustainable agriculture is the increase in soil fertility due to multi-crop plantings. In a sustainable agricultural model, farmers plant more than one crop on their land, which prevents nutrient depletion.
Another benefit of sustainable agricultural methods is better living conditions for livestock. Industrial farming practices for livestock are often cruel at best, with animals living quite literally on top of one another. Aside from poor living standards, livestock raised in this manner are more susceptible to disease. In sustainable models, livestock are raised in healthier and more humane conditions.
The one hurdle for farmers adopting a sustainable model, (for now), is profitability. For many farmers, it is currently more financially prudent to mono-crop their fields and use unsustainable practices. However, with the right incentives and breakthroughs in technology, this may not be the case for much longer.
Because sustainable agriculture is the future of food security, the government stepped in to play a critical role in its protection. The 2018 farm bill passed by congress set aside 50 million dollars of the budget for agricultural research, and made soil health a top priority. In addition, key protections were made for the beginning farmer and rancher development program. This program is vital for encouraging and training the next generation to start profitable and responsible agricultural businesses.
Listed below are some of the top sustainable agricultural practices for more responsible farming. While sustainable models contain many different techniques, the processes detailed below are the most common and feasible.
In most modern farms, only one or two crops are grown year round. While this may be profitable, it depletes the nutrients in the soil and makes crops reliant on artificial fertilizers for success. In a sustainable model, farmers use crop rotation. Crop rotation prevents nutrient depletion since all crops use different levels of nutrients. For instance, when corn is rotated to alfalfa after harvest, some of the nitrogen used to grow the corn is replenished by alfalfa’s cultivation.
Livestock and crop combination is another technique that increases sustainability. In this practice, livestock manure, which contains many of the essential nutrients needed for healthy soil, is the main fertilizer. While raising livestock with crops can add complexity to a farming operation, it can also increase its sustainability and natural fertility. Livestock raised in concert with crops will almost always enjoy the added benefit of more humane living conditions and less disease prevalence.
A cover crop is a plant grown during the offseason that prevents soils used for production to be left bare. Bare soil erodes exponentially faster than a soil with a cover crop planted, and erosion causes nutrient loss. Planting a cover crop, if incentivized by policy regulations, can actually reduce overall costs of production for a farm and increase its sustainability.
Vertical farming is a method of agriculture where planting of crops is done in a vertically-built environment. For environments with little land or infertile soil, like in cities, vertical farming offers a sustainable option for growing crops. Vertical farming reduces amounts of carbon, water, pollution, and sustainability costs associated with conventional agriculture and is becoming popular in areas like Asia-Pacific region and urban cities like Seattle.
Sustainable agriculture methods are the future of farming. Not only is it healthier for the planet, it is healthier for the global food supply. If farmed responsibly, earth can support future population growth for many generations to come. The best time to adopt sustainable agricultural practices was twenty years ago, but the second best time is now.
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