Global agriculture produces the food we eat and directly employs nearly one-third of the earth’s population. Yet, today’s methods of agriculture are also driving some of the most severe problems affecting human wellbeing, animal wellbeing, and the environment. Negative impacts of food production come primarily from industrial agriculture as pioneered and practiced by the US and other high-income industrialized countries.
Sustainable agriculture offers solutions for many of the intersecting problems generated or intensified by conventional industrial agriculture, including environmental damage, animal cruelty, chronic hunger and poverty, and high emissions contributing to global climate change. With supportive public policy and international cooperation to facilitate wide adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, agriculture could become a powerful force for improving human development, animal welfare, and environmental protection.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?
Sustainable agriculture is a set of principles and practices that aim to eliminate avoidable harm to people, animals, and the environment from food production. Rather than extracting value from natural systems, sustainable agriculture preserves and strengthens ecosystem function both on and off the farm. These ideas and techniques align with many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainable agriculture can provide pathways to increased economic stability, create opportunities for farmers and farming communities, improve the living conditions of farmed animals and wild animals, and lead to better environmental stewardship—all of which will help to build a healthier world.
SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE VERSUS INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE
Humans have been interacting with and modifying plants and animals in our environment since the dawn of human history. What we know as agriculture today likely began at least 10,000 years ago at several sites in modern Jordan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. For much of its history, agriculture was practiced in a manner that made sustainable use of local resources, returned nutrients to the soil from animal and human waste, and operated in balance with changing seasons and climates. Lacking the technology to mechanically manage and harvest large tracts of land or substitute synthetic materials for natural processes like soil fertility, early farmers practiced agriculture at small scales in harmony with the surrounding landscape and its resources.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, developments in farming technology—including large-scale irrigation, combustion-engine-powered tractors, and synthetic agrichemicals—began to industrialize agriculture. Meanwhile, the invention of refrigeration technology and vast road, rail, air, and marine transportation networks helped spur a transition from local food systems to global food webs that extend beyond state and national borders. Modern industrial farming in the US and other developed countries now employs methods that are largely divorced from the natural processes of ecosystems, leading to the unsustainable exploitation of resources and giving rise to a host of negative consequences.
THE IMPACTS OF INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE
Industrial agriculture has drastically altered the US farming landscape and increasingly the world. Diverse patchworks of small-scale farms have been replaced by vast monocrops of soy, wheat, and corn, subsidized by public funds. Subsidized commodity crops are used to create highly processed and unhealthy food products or are fed to intensively farmed animals. Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, now dominate the landscape and confine animals, including chickens, dairy cows, and pigs indoors for the majority of their lives. Pollution from industrial monocrops, in the form of residual pesticides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers, enters the air and water of surrounding environments and can contaminate human foods. CAFOs generate enormous volumes of animal waste, posing health threats to farmworkers and surrounding communities. Water pollution from agricultural activities can travel great distances, causing toxic algal blooms and dead zones in marine environments hundreds of miles away from the source. CAFOs also generate copious amounts of greenhouse gases that are accelerating climate change.
Industrial agriculture nourishes farmed animals and consumers in high-income populations by unsustainably exploiting the land and labor of agricultural workers in developing countries. Monocrops of soy are planted in sensitive and largely irreplaceable habitats such as the Amazon rainforest to satisfy international demand for meat and animal feed. Meat production, especially cattle rearing, requires immense amounts of land to produce, rendering the beef-rich diets of wealthier nations—namely the US, Canada, Argentina, Australia, China, and some European countries—environmentally unsustainable.
THE MYTH OF EFFICIENCY
Corporations involved in industrial agriculture often cite the moral imperative of producing enough to “feed the world” and the need for efficiency in agriculture. Efficiency is evident in industrial agriculture’s focus on crop yields and profit margins, simplifying the biological complexity of crops and growing environments to input/output ratios comparing the capital invested and the volume of product harvested. This technical language and the purported humanitarian justification for efficiency shroud the underlying profit motive of industrial farming and preserve the myth of agricultural efficiency.
Efficiency—as articulated by industrial agriculture—relies on oversimplifying landscapes and impacts. It is only possible to calculate efficiency where costs and benefits can be quantified into dollars and cents. But farms are ecologically complex, benefiting from—and impacting—natural processes such as soil microbe activity, rainwater availability, and pollination by insects or wind. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately assess the exact monetary value of the many ecological aspects of farming—especially if the cost-benefit analysis does not seek to understand agriculture’s broader impacts on the landscape.
Some impacts of industrial agriculture may only become apparent outside the farm or on longer timescales than a single season or harvest year. For example, if a synthetic fertilizer boosts yields of a crop while harming pollinators and reducing the ability of the soil to retain water, the real “efficiency” of that production system will be seen over many seasons and will depend on ecological factors beyond the farm’s ratio of inputs to outputs. Research accounting for nature’s services finds that the value of healthy environments exceeds global GDP, and land-use change is costing humanity billions of dollars each year.
Industrial farming is also heavily subsidized by governments, masking the true cost of producing food using intensive methods. The US government alone provides farmers with billions of dollars in subsidies each year, much of which is directed toward the largest industrial farms. This public support cements the dominance of the industrial agriculture that increasingly produces the nation’s food.
Perhaps the most glaring contradiction within industrial agriculture’s claim of efficiency is that global hunger persists despite industrial agriculture—and is worsening—even though the world already produces more than enough food to adequately feed every person on earth. The profit motives of industrial agriculture, combined with unsustainable consumption patterns among the world’s wealthiest consumers, use much of this food to farm animals for food rather than to directly feed hungry communities worldwide.
Where industrial farming is genuinely efficient is in maximizing the profits of powerful corporate agribusiness interests and minimizing the wealth shared with farmers, farmworkers, and farming communities. Public subsidies prop up overproduction of corn, soy, and milk, despite market prices below the cost of production. Industrial agribusiness presents an oversimplified expression of its production efficiency based on short-term crop output while burdening the public through externalized long-term costs to human health and the environment.
Simultaneously, agribusiness companies work to control farmers, farming, and the global food supply, for example, by acquiring rival seed and chemical companies and patenting biological organisms. Between the 1990s—when US law first granted agribusiness developers legal patents on seeds—and today, a landscape of hundreds of small seed companies across the US has simplified to four industry giants. These same agribusiness firms also employ strong-arm tactics with farmers who buy, sell, or plant their patented hybrid seeds paired with chemical weed killers. These strong-arm tactics include covert surveillance of farmers and farm communities and lawsuits served to farmers found to be growing crops containing patented genes, even if those genes arrived via pollen from patented crops drifting on the wind to neighboring farmers’ fields. Costly attorney’s fees to fight the big pockets and tireless litigation of agribusiness has forced some small farmers out of business. Lawsuits finding for farmers seeking restitution for damages are comparatively rare.
WHY IS SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE SO IMPORTANT?
“Sustainability” encompasses a variety of metrics, and sustainable farming can have a positive effect on a range of intersectional issues, from conserving natural resources to improving the health of individuals and communities.
We live on a planet with finite resources, so it is imperative to use these resources wisely. Sustainable agriculture helps to conserve natural resources and ensure their viability for future generations. Sustainable agricultural practices can safeguard and build fertile soil, which is essential for the optimal growth of food crops. Sustainable agriculture makes wise use of freshwater resources and ensures that runoff remains free of toxic pollutants while moving downstream to other ecosystems or human consumers. Sustainable agriculture also reduces reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and encourages a diversity of plant life through crop rotation and planting various species of beneficial non-crop vegetation on the borders of fields. All these features help to sustain healthy, biodiverse environments on and around farms.
Sustainable agriculture offers solutions for the negative health consequences of the industrial food system. The nutritional content of industrially produced foods tends to be lower than that of freshly made foods from small-scale farming because mass-produced industrial foods and their ingredients undergo more processing before reaching the consumer. Industrial foods are produced with durability and standardization in mind, packaged and preserved to withstand long-distance travel and long periods of time on store shelves before consumption. In search of short-term profit, corporations prioritize higher yields, outward appearance, and shelf life over nutrition for optimal health. Sustainable agriculture techniques, on the other hand, aim to grow fresh and nutritious foods for local food webs, for example, by improving soil health. Managing soil health and nutrient cycling are important prerequisites for ensuring the presence of optimal levels of healthful vitamins and minerals in harvested crops. Sustainable agricultural products are also less likely to be contaminated with harmful agrichemicals, including pesticides, antibiotics, and synthetic fertilizers.
Human beings do not require animal products to maintain optimal health, yet meat, milk, and eggs feature regularly in typical diets in wealthy countries. High demand for animal products has been partly responsible for the rise of CAFOs, which harm the welfare of most farmed animals.
Sustainable agriculture practices can help to decrease the intensity of animal farming, allowing animals to live more autonomously in smaller numbers in healthy natural environments. Some approaches to sustainable agriculture can even exclude animals from food production altogether, focusing instead on a variety of plant crops for plant-based diets.
LOCAL ECONOMIES AND WORKERS
A century ago, people in the US were fed by small, often family-owned farms, each growing various crops and managing a small number of animals. Since the 1950s, however, things have changed, with large farms growing larger and becoming increasingly vertically integrated and concerned with cost efficiency. Driven by the bottom line, food corporations tend to offer lower wages to farmworkers, which depresses local economies by leaving residents with less income to spend in local businesses. Corporate consolidation also has the effect of squeezing out smaller farmers. Many small farms cannot compete with the lower prices and higher volume of large agricultural conglomerates that benefit from public subsidies and vertical integration. In the US and globally, industrial agriculture is responsible for disrupting smallholder land tenure and worsening rural poverty.
Compared to industrial agribusiness, small-scale sustainable agriculture can have many benefits for local farming economies. Small-scale sustainable farming managed by local residents strengthens economies by protecting the right of rural populations to work their own land rather than to work as contractors for multinational corporations. And while transitioning to sustainable agriculture requires knowledge and additional labor, low-input sustainable practices can lead to cost savings over the long term by replacing expensive agrichemicals and patented seeds. Along with broader economic and policy changes to support farmers shifting away from industrial production, sustainable agriculture can help to return power to farmers and farming communities.
WHAT ARE THE PRACTICES OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?
Practicing agriculture sustainability is about farming in harmony with natural landscape processes and prioritizing the long-term health of the full ecosystem. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to farming sustainably, there are several practices that form the core of sustainable agriculture:
- Reducing or eliminating synthetic inputs can include avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides, using heirloom or saved seeds rather than improved hybrid seeds, rotating crops to reduce pest populations, and, where feasible and appropriate, using manual rather than mechanized harvest methods to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
- Protecting and regenerating soil means planting cover crops to avoid exposing bare soil to the elements, increasing organic matter through the use of compost and green manure crops, and reducing or avoiding tillage of the soil.
- Encouraging beneficial biodiversity includes avoiding toxic inputs, celebrating diverse crops, planting non-crop vegetation to attract pollinators and promote pest predators, and integrating forestry into farming where possible.
One of the biggest challenges crop farmers face is crop damage by disease and pests. Healthy soils and proper nutrient management help plants stay robust to disease. When diseases do occur, crop diversity and natural remedies can reduce impacts to crops without harmful chemicals. With the right knowledge, diseases and pests can be kept under control by harnessing natural processes, removing the need for synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that harm ecosystem health. With an understanding of the life cycle of pests, their natural predators, and their habitats, infestations can be prevented or controlled.
Ensuring soil fertility is another pressure that causes many farmers to turn to synthetic fertilizers. Building soil fertility naturally and safeguarding soil health are key for ensuring long-term productivity in farming regions. Reducing soil disturbances like tillage and the use of heavy machinery helps soil remain uncompacted and prevents fertile topsoil from being lost to erosion. Planting cover crops between more profitable harvests boost soil nutrients and helps soils hold more moisture. Diversifying and rotating crops, rather than planting a single crop species in the same field year after year, protects soils from becoming depleted and supports robust populations of microorganisms that deliver nutrients to crops.
SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE IN THE US
While there is still far more public and private investment in industrial agriculture than in sustainable alternatives, the sustainable agriculture movement within the US is gradually gaining more federal support. In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) established a Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program that supports critical sustainable agriculture research to help correct the funding and knowledge gap between industrial and sustainable farming. The SAS program also provides funding for sustainable farming initiatives, partnering with organizations that offer regional support for farmers.
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is a regional US initiative supporting a robust and growing sustainability movement. SARE provides technical assistance to farmers, gives grants, and runs education programs. Their recent grants have gone to projects such as using bacteria to reduce the need for water and fertilizer, exploring mushroom cultivation as an alternative farm income stream, and supporting farmers’ markets and food cooperatives.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST THREAT TO AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY TODAY?
There are many ways that the industrial agricultural sector is putting future agricultural sustainability in jeopardy, including pollution of freshwater and marine ecosystems, soil depletion, and decreasing biodiversity. However, the biggest threat to agricultural sustainability is climate change.
Destabilized weather patterns can cause droughts, desertification, and saltwater intrusion on farmlands—each of which has drastic implications for freshwater availability and soil health. Unexpected hot or cold weather and changes to pest populations can also affect planting and harvesting and cause massive losses in yields. Food security, food sovereignty, and agricultural sustainability efforts worldwide are increasingly under threat due to climate change and extreme weather, which are predicted to worsen for at least the next several decades. Without urgent and widespread action by the nations of the world, climatic shifts and extreme weather events problems will transform food production by the end of the twenty-first century.
ADVOCATES FOR SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE
There are many organizations across the US working toward widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural practices and strengthening public support for a sustainable farming sector:
- Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders
- National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
- North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
- Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
- Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
- Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
The dominant methods of commercial agricultural production in the US way are in dire need of change. From CAFOs to corn and soy monocultures, conventional industrial practices come with combined animal, human, and environmental costs that our world can no longer afford.
The solutions to these problems must be systemic and transformational, beginning with supportive public policy an regional initiatives for agricultural transition. Public, private, and grassroots investment can incentivize sustainable practices and assist farmers who wish to transition to new crops and methods. Rejection of corporate-controlled industrial agriculture, inclusive empowerment of farmers worldwide, and widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural practices are the solutions for creating a healthy and vibrant food future.
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