Sustainable Agriculture in Theory



This proved to be a difficult piece to write. I wanted to get the basic concepts across without this piece becoming an exhaustive reference work. There are far better pages on the internet, than I could ever create, that already does this. But I also wanted to convey a few of my thoughts on the topic without it becoming a full blown sermon.

Let’s start by getting this out of the way: 

IF IT ISN’T PROFITABLE IT’S NOT SUSTAINABLE

This statement should speak to both sides of the aisle! Firstly to the Sceptics and Naysayers, the aim is still to run a profitmaking agricultural business but there are better and more just, efficient and healthy ways to go about it. Secondly to the Converted and Idealist, all of us in the Sustainable Agriculture movement can do with a good dose of pragmatism to help implement and grow our ideas into reality. For those of you that would like to explore my second statement a bit more watch this YouTube video from Richard Perkins at Ridgedale Permaculture. It really resonated with me. 




So my rant out of the way let’s get into the meat of it. What is Sustainable Agriculture about. If condensed to its essence it is the following definition from UCDAVIS Agricultural Sustainibility Institute:

“Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work:

HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT, ECONOMIC VIABILITY & EQUITABLE SOCIETY.

One could elaborate on this and quote what SARE calls the 3 Pillars of Sustainability:

Profit over the long term

Stewardship of our land, air and water

Quality of life for farmers and their communities

To achieve this there are a myriad of issues that needs to be grappled with and a lot of practices that can be adopted. Sustainable agriculture often cross disciplinary lines combining biology, economics, engineering, chemistry, community development, and many others. The issues dealt with most are presented in the table below, but do remember these present the Extremities of a Continuum. Many Conventional Farmers already implement elements of Sustainable Practice and many Sustainable Farmers have got major room for improvement left (This farmer definitely being one of the latter).



 

AGRICULTURE

ISSUES

 

 

CONVENTIONAL

PRACTISE

 

SUSTAINABLE

PRACTISE

Soil Quality

  • Soil quality decline where soil erosion is a chronic problem, organic matter not replenished, microbial activity damaged by farm chemicals, soil compacted by farming practices
  • Conventional tillage or conservation tillage but combined with heavy chemical use
  • Soil quality a central concern where soil protected from erosion by cover crops, crop residue, low impact tillage, and conservation measures such as windbreaks; organic matter continually added, farming methods and smaller sized machinery keep soil loose and friable
  • Conservation tillage techniques combined with bio friendly management to cut the use of chemicals

Water Usage and Conservation

  • Water is abstracted  from dropping aquifers, agricultural chemicals degrade water supplies and threaten aquatic life
  • Conservation structures and areas take a back seat to more production
  • Farming methods conserve water and soil moisture and protect surface and ground water from pollutants and sediment
  • Conservation is a top priority: terraces, buffer strips, riparian buffers and other conservation structures, practices, and areas incorporated into the farm.

Organic Waste Management

  • Concentrate large amounts of animal wastes in one place, overloading the ability of the area to utilize it and also increasing chances of spills and water pollution
  • Animal wastes provide nutrients for growing crops without polluting watersheds; smaller numbers of animals are raised on integrated farms where they are part of a diversified system

Animal & Plant Selection for Adaption to Environment

  • With large amounts of inputs, farmers can raise non-adapted crops and animals.
  • Genetic engineering further narrows genetic diversity
  • Farmers raise animals and plants adapted to the existing environment
  •  Time honored, traditional breeding programs look to preserve genetic diversity

Biodiversity

  • Monoculture is the norm: farms are plowed fence row to fence row, wild “unused” areas are put into production, only the most productive crop varieties or livestock breeds are raised
  • Diversity is the norm: of habitats, livestock, crops, wild plant and animal species, and of genetics within crop and livestock species

Pest Control

  • A therapeutic approach where chemicals are used routinely to control pests
  • The use of toxic chemicals for pest control is minimized and ecologically-based, benign management and cultural practices used

Nonrenewable Resource Use

  • Powered by finite fossil fuels: fertility and pest control needs are filled by agricultural chemicals
  • Use of fossil fuels encouraged
  • Food production is centralized in a few regions which specialize in certain crops which are shipped around the nation and world
  • Powered by the sun; fertility and pest control largely provided by cycling of plants and animals in the system using rotations, cover crops, trap crops, resistant crops
  • Renewable energy resources (biofuels, solar) substitute fossil fuels when possible and conservation of fossil fuels encouraged
  • Food production is decentralized to encourage, biodiverse, environmentally adapted localized food systems which save fossil fuels

Profitability And Risk Management

  • Small and medium-sized farms are marginalized, pressure is on farmers to increase the size of their operations
  • The farm is viewed solely as an agribusiness
  • Short-term profit is the focus
  • Because of low prices, farm families on small- and mediumsized farms depend largely on government payments and non-farm income for support
  • Profitability undermined by dependence on expensive inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides
  • Small and medium-sized family farms generate equitable returns so that farmers can protect natural resources, stay in business over the long-term, and have a good quality of life
  • The farm is viewed holistically, with the quality of life of the farm family one part of a whole
  • Long-term consequences of farming methods are given equal weight to short-term profit
  • Free on-farm resources utilized to the maximum for fertility and pest-control

Equity And Quality Of Life

  • Large corporations control farmers and markets through contracts and vertical integration
  • Uncompetitive practices the norm
  • Large farmers favored over small in contracts and pricing
  • Health risks for farm families increased because of pesticide use and polluted water
  • Few farmers needed
  • Poverty rates very high in rural areas and accepted as inevitable
  • Free markets prevail and farmers have control over how they farm
  • Contracts fair to both big and small operations and give farmers maximum flexibility and rights
  • Use of health-threatening chemicals minimized
  • More farmers on the land essential to stewardship of the land
  • A prosperous farming class essential to democracy and social well-being

Rural Communities

  • Rural communities seen as a source of cheap labor
  • Rural communities targeted as sites for polluting industries
  • Social wellbeing of rural communities not important; migration to urban areas encouraged
  • Economic decay of rural communities seen as inevitable and not of concern to urban areas
  • Rural communities a source of skilled, well-paid labor
  • Rural communities a place where value-added, farmer owned, entrepreneurial enterprises thrive
  • Rural communities provide a nurturing, supportive environment for residents
  • Rural communities attract non-polluting industries
  • Revitalized rural communities essential to the social and economic health of the country


As I wrote in an earlier piece, Sustainable Agriculture is a very complex topic and deals with a myriad of disciplines. All of the following are in some or other way part of the broader church of Sustainable Agriculture: Biodynamic Farming, Organic Farming, Regenerative Agriculture, Agroecology and Permaculture. To quote at length from the United States Department of Agriculture Website:

“Some terms defy definition. "Sustainable agriculture" has become one of them. In such a quickly changing world, can anything be sustainable? What do we want to sustain? How can we implement such a nebulous goal? Is it too late? With the contradictions and questions have come a hard look at our present food production system and thoughtful evaluations of its future. If nothing else, the term "sustainable agriculture" has provided "talking points," a sense of direction, and an urgency, that has sparked much excitement and innovative thinking in the agricultural world.”




To finish then here comes my sermon! I just couldn’t resist... 

I got really annoyed with the following Blog Post by Angus McIntosh (Farmer Angus: Sustainability Is Defeatist) as it put Regenerative Agriculture on a pedestal above all the others and made a negative connotation to the word Sustainable Agriculture. I’m probably going to get my ears boxed as Angus has been walking the talk for a long time now and as such I really look up to him and what he has achieved. However statements like these only serve to confuse the general public and consumers even more.

It does bring us back to my earlier link to Richard Perkin’s work. We as Supporters and Practitioners should educate people more about Sustainable Agriculture and infuse our thoughts with a good daily dose of pragmatism. This will also go a long way to getting conventional farmers onto the wagon and take them forward with us rather than alienating them. I feel these kinds of statements also plays right into the hands of those out there that use buzz words and catch phrases to sell consumers the next big thing. When consumers have not even got their heads around the current terms and phrases in use and what it is they represent. And that is sure as hell NOT SUSTAINABLE and in the process the message gets lost.

 In my next piece I will try and discuss how all the above works in practice and what we at Allendale Farm are doing to try and achieve this and implement it on our farm. Hopefully there will be some photos from the farm and maybe even a YouTube Video of our own to go with it.


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