In recent years there has been growing concern about the long-term viability of our current industrial oriented agricultural practices. This has spawned a number of movements including the organic farming movement and local farming efforts but the most significant area attempting to address the long term viability of agriculture is the sustainable farming movement. The goal of sustainable farming is to develop and implement farming practices and strategies that will support continued viability of the soils and natural resources necessary for farming on a long term/permanent basis. At a little higher level it means approaches to agriculture that addresses long term environmental, economic and social well being. It is an agricultural system capable of maintaining productively indefinitely with renewable resources and offers some alternatives and options to the current conventional agriculture strategies in the US today.
Some of the concerns about our current industrial agricultural and the food system it supports include: its significant reliance on petroleum and other chemicals to maintain production (agriculture is a major consumer of oil and generator of toxins); its significant negative impact on our natural resources – air, water, soil, habitat and biodiversity (probably the biggest single element affecting most of these areas); its reliance on monocultures and a limited number of species for the majority of our food sources; food safety and quality issues including nutritional quality and toxic elements in our food (some aspect of our obesity element may be addressed here); industrial farming impacts on the local faming communities in financial, social and cultural aspects; and concern over our current food system’s ability to adapt to a changing climate.
Many of these concerns point to potential long term viability issues with our current mainstream approach as well as its short term susceptibility to catastrophic events. While industrial agriculture will likely not be replaced anytime soon there are certainly opportunities for many improvements and there is also a need to develop alternative food systems to make us less dependant on a single and potentially susceptible source and to reduce agriculture’s negative impacts on our environment and society. While these topics can at times be very political and all may not agree on the concerns about our current agriculture system I think that is wise to take a look at what sustainable agriculture has to offer. These concerns are really a more recent development as an industrial approach to agriculture took hold in the 50’s and accelerated in the 60’s and 70’s.
If you look at some of the core goals of sustainable farming they really tend to make a lot of sense. Some of these core goals include: Supplying food and fiber (and maybe energy sources); Enhancing environmental quality; Preserving natural resources including soil, water, air and biodiversity; Using non-renewable resources efficiently; Taking better advantage of on-farm resources; Employing natural and biological controls for pests and disease; Sustaining the economic viability of farming; and Enhancing the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
One of the key concerns of sustainable agriculture is protecting, maintaining and improving the soils on the farm. This is a critical resource that takes years and in some cases centuries to build and the loss of soil is a critical environmental issue for the US and the world as a whole. Additional elements of sustainable agriculture that we will explore in more depth in the future include: Energy; Water Resources; Biodiversity; Crop Diversity; Integrated Farming Techniques; Biological and Ecological approaches to crop systems; Information intensive approaches to farming; Social responsibility issues related to farming; And more….
Over the course of the next year we will include articles and information on sustainable agriculture in our newsletter, on our website and in our blogs to help educate our community on these important issues. Part 2 will include a comparison of the key differences between current conventional agriculture and sustainable agriculture. After that we will feature many of the strategies and practices being promoted for sustainable farming.