Sustainability is an often misunderstood concept, particularly with regards to agriculture. Upon hearing the word, many conceive visions of communes, low crop yields and eccentric, hyper-green gardeners. In reality, sustainable agriculture practices have been around and utilised by the most production-minded farmers for many generations. In fact, sustainability is a quintessentially conservative aim. A marathon runner does not start her race at full speed, maintaining it until she hits the wall. Nor does a prudent financial planner advise pouring all the client’s assets into a single venture. Understanding the long-term nature of their respective enterprises, they husband their resources for optimal use. This idea of prudent use is central to sustainable agriculture.
From the Ground Up (and Down)
Responsible stewardship of the land begins with the soil. Over the years, scientists have produced many different chemical-based fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to—respectively—improve crop yield, kill off strangling weeds and terminate destructive insects. Toward these ends they have performed remarkably well. Yet the steady application of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium gives rise to problematic side effects. One example is groundwater contamination, which can damage both soil health and public health. Nitrogen can also release nitrous oxide, a major culprit in ozone depletion. The bottom line is that much of the nutrients in these fertilizers is not absorbed by crops.
As organic matter, soil is formed very slowly. Under ideal circumstances, the evolving soil would be covered by plants or decomposing flora and fauna. Intensive industrial farming, however, leaves the soil exposed to wind, flood and the violence of the elements. When this happens, the topsoil is moved and formation is stunted. This is known as soil erosion, of which at least 50 percent of Australia’s arable land is susceptible. The sad irony is that the removed earth contains more nutrients than the earth that is left. Consequently, crop productivity dissipates thereby shrinking farm income. Hence, the desire to increase profits ends up robbing from them. What is more, the wasted fertilizer chemicals are then transported to the general water supply by runoff that would otherwise be dammed by topsoil.
So what are the sustainable farming practices that improve the health of the soil?
Here are some that are utilised by mindful farmers:
* Crop rotation to maximize organic nutrients
* Planting cover crops (or green manure) to shield topsoil
* Use of organic fertilizers that spur the growth of microorganisms and keep the soil less compacted
* Setting loose ladybugs, beetles and bats to feast on predatory insects
* Strategic planting (in grids as opposed to rows) to reduce the damage from weeds.
Unlock the Livestock
Animal husbandry has always been integral to an agricultural economy. Milk, meat and eggs are foodstuffs right alongside grains fruits and vegetables. An unfortunate short-sighted trend, however, separated the raising of animals from the growing of crops. In turn, manure used for fertilizer became too expensive to ship to farms. Thus, crop farmers depended more on synthetic fertilizers while the manure from cattle station sheds and other livestock feedlots became more pollutant than potash. Problems relative to storage and disposal now plague stockmen and livestock farmers worldwide. As with crops, this demonstrates a specific dysfunction in the cycle of nutrients.
In this case, the nutrients are not recycled back into the earth, but instead rot in large quantities and become toxic. Paying truckers to haul the manure away can hardly be called a sustainable practice. The good news is that there are sustainable agriculture practices that can reduce the amount of wasted…well, waste.
Here is what can be done to make ‘animal agriculture’ more sustainable:
* Pasture rotation that gives grasslands appropriate time to recover from grazing
* Reducing herd size and giving animals more space for feeding and forage
* Diversify animal populations (i.e. cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens etc.)
* Spread manure on pastures where and when appropriate (taking care not to over-apply)
* Invest in technology like anaerobic digesters that convert manure methane to usable energy
Clearly, the advantages of sustainable agriculture are many: healthy soil, vibrant crops and hardy livestock, to name a few. Other sustainability variables include economics and ecology. The machinery that farmers use has a direct impact on sustainability. Tractors, combines, balers and other implements are necessary to produce in sufficient volume to make a living and feed a population. Farmers do well to utilise eco-friendly diesel engines in their equipment. Key to limiting air pollution and fossil fuel use is fuel economy. Controlled tests comparing diesel and petrol engines to hybrid engines demonstrate a substantially superior miles to gallon ratio in favor of diesel. Furthermore, the technology of diesel engines is constantly improving. If conserving resources and streamlining inputs is at the heart of sustainable agriculture, eco-friendly diesel engines keep the heart pumping.
Adapting agriculture practices is not easy but not too difficult either. There are many types of farms that have different practices. Farmers can adjust it to fit what they are comfortable with and that makes sense for the size of their operations.