Conceptualizing Sustainable Agriculture: Part 1

Wed, 2012-08-29 11:26

The agricultural industry in the United States has rapidly evolved over the past few decades from smaller family-owned farms to more expansive, commercial farms. Advancements in technology, mechanization, specialization, and government policies for maximum production quotas have systematically contributed to farming practices that have negatively impacted consumers, animals, and the environment. In response, there is a growing movement to alleviate many of the agricultural problems associated with the commercialization of farming, particularly, the rise of sustainable agricultural practices.

farmlandWhat is sustainable agriculture? On a fundamental level, sustainable agriculture incorporates three main principles – environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. In this multi-part blog series, the three main principles will be discussed in detail to provide an understanding of why sustainable agriculture is important. To begin, I will discuss the first principle, environmental health. Given the scope of topics related to environmental health, I will first discuss one of the most important, which involves environmental balance.

Environmental Health:

Environmental Balance

In general, the environmental health component of sustainable agriculture integrates the principle that we, as a community, must meet the agricultural needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their needs. In a healthy agricultural system, the relationship between farming and the natural environment is harmonious. One of the main problems in the current agricultural system is the continuous use of land without respect for environmental balance. In a balanced system, nutrients in the soil are replaced by the rotation of crops, which are then grazed, and eventually fertilized by animal waste. Currently, many industrial farms do not rotate crops, thereby limiting the ability for the soil to replenish itself and provide adequate conditions for crop production.

Compounding this problem is the over-application of manure and chemical fertilizers for the replenishment of soil, which has caused contamination and degradation of land areas. In regards to animal waste, many factory farms concentrate an unhealthy amount of animals in one location, which creates the conditions for unmanageable waste. In response, many commercial farms mix the waste with water to create “lagoons” until the waste is ready to be spread or sprayed on cropland. The following not only leads to water contamination, but also over-application on crops, which oftentimes damages the soil. As a result, the soil is less fertile, creating the need for more land to compensate for the loss of adequate farming areas. In the same regard, the pollutants found in the manure, such as growth hormones and antibiotics, can contaminate waterways and can impact plant, animal, and human health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), waste generated from animal agriculture has polluted over 35,000 miles of river in 22 states and reports from the Department of Economics at the University of Essex note an annual cost of $34.7 billion a year to cover the environmental damage caused by industrial farming in the United States.

Moreover, the amount of pollution generated by production on factory farms creates unhealthy air conditions. Harmful gases and particles such as hydrogen sulfide and methane are usually emitted on these farms, created harmful conditions for those living and working nearby, as well as contributing to ozone depletion.

In a sustainable farming system, farming techniques such as crop rotation and soil conservation are favored to provide conditions suitable for healthy crop production without negative environmental side-effects. Furthermore, sustainable farming ensures the use of natural fertilization, to reduce the environmental hazards such as air and water contamination. Natural fertilizers, which are composed entirely of organic matter such as compost or manure, help replenish the soil’s organic composition through a wide range of nutrients. In fact, the USDA “Certified Organic” designation can only be applied to crops grown using natural fertilizers. Overall, ensuring environmental balance will contribute to the preservation of land for future generations, thereby enabling the future of successful agricultural farming.

Although environmental balance is an important element of environmental health, there are numerous other elements that comprise this principle of sustainable agriculture. In the successive blog post, I will discuss some other elements of environmental balance, including biodiversity and animal welfare. For more information about Everblue’s future programs related to sustainable agriculture, please visit our Sustainable Agriculture information page.

By Peter J. Bock

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