Everyone deserves access to healthy food. Over roughly the last half-century, conventional agriculture has ramped up efforts to provide nutrition for rapidly growing populations. Yet, while the current industrial food system produces enough food to feed humanity, it also squanders resources and wreaks havoc on communities, the environment, and animals on farms and in wild habitats.
Enter sustainable farming: an approach to growing food while conserving the planet’s finite resources. With its ecosystem-based approach, sustainable agriculture helps to safeguard the food supply and the land upon which it is reliant, ensuring productivity for the decades ahead. This article will explore what sustainable farming is, the problems with the current food system, and why sustainable agricultural practices should become the norm in the United States and around the world.
DEFINING SUSTAINABLE FARMING
To understand sustainable farming, it’s essential to first understand conventional agriculture. The face of farming has changed dramatically over the last century in the US. Where once a large number of small, family-run farms provided the nation’s food, today the sector is dominated by massive mechanized harvesting of monocrops and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that are controlled by a handful of powerful multinational corporations. Farmers around the nation have taken on debt while working to supply agrifood corporations that profit from the abuse of people, animals, and the land itself. While this system produces vast quantities of food, much of it is wasted, and hunger remains a troubling problem in the US and worldwide.
In contrast, the goals of sustainable farming are to provide abundant accessible, wholesome foods while ensuring the health of the land, practicing the wise use of resources, and generating economic stability for farmers, farmworkers, and farming communities. Sustainable agriculture can refer to a wide range of practices and approaches depending on each farm’s unique landscape and context. The term sustainable also means different things to different people, ranging from expressions of continuing environmental health to measures of economic strength and continuity.
Whichever frame one uses, there is a growing consensus that certain common forms of agriculture are not compatible with any definition of sustainability. Industrial animal agriculture, in particular, represents an extractive approach to food production that cannot ever be considered sustainable thanks to the pollution such facilities generate, the social inequity they perpetuate, the economic consequences they bring for farming communities, and the routine cruelties they inflict upon the animals they exploit. In many ways, this form of farming ensures the antithesis of a sustainable future. Much of this article will focus on the impacts of industrial animal agriculture because it creates many of the most urgent problems in the food system.
WHY SUSTAINABLE FARMING IS IMPORTANT
Today’s food system is broken, with calls for reform growing ever louder. Sustainable farming offers potential solutions to the myriad problems embedded within the conventional agricultural system. By acknowledging agriculture’s massive environmental footprint as well as the importance of conserving resources and using them wisely, sustainable agriculture principles and practices work to mitigate the worst of the current food system’s impacts and can help pave the way towards a future in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive.
THE ADVANTAGES OF SUSTAINABLE FARMING
Sustainable farming has many advantages, from producing healthier food to safeguarding a future in which a robust, reliable food system can be realized.
BUILDING AND MAINTAINING HEALTHY SOIL
Fertile soil, also known as topsoil, is generated over thousands of years by the natural life and death cycles of plants and animals. Soil is the medium in which plants live, delivering the nutrients and water plants require in order to grow. What might appear to be just “dirt” is actually a combination of living and non-living matter capable of housing diverse communities of macro and microorganisms including worms, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and algae that contribute to soil’s structure and nutrient availability. Fertile topsoil rests above deeper layers of ground, including the subsoil and the substratum. Topsoil is the best medium in which to grow crops.
But topsoil is fragile. When disrupted by activities like tilling, a standard practice in industrial crop management as a defense against weeds, soil can become susceptible to erosion. As loosened soil is whisked away by wind and water, barren, desertified ground can be left behind. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned that, should conventional agricultural practices continue unabated, the world’s topsoil could entirely vanish within the century.
Pollution can also negatively affect soil. Agrichemical fertilizers and pesticides can damage the natural microbial activity that supports soil fertility, which can ultimately make crops dependent on added nutrients. At the same time, these chemical inputs can leave potentially harmful residues in foods and can leave behind lingering toxicity that accumulates in oceans, lakes, and the bodies of animals–including humans.
Sustainable agriculture’s focus on building and maintaining healthy soil is therefore a critical component in securing the viability of food systems worldwide. Practices recommended for building and sustaining healthy soil include planting diverse crops; reducing or eliminating tilling that can disrupt and loosen soil; and never leaving fields bare with exposed soil, which has the effect of lowering nutrient availability and allowing dry soil to blow away as dust in the wind.
MINIMIZING POLLUTION OF LAND, WATER, AND AIR
One of the primary reasons that intensive animal agriculture cannot be considered sustainable is the pollution such farms generate, particularly when it comes to animal waste. CAFOs in the US produce over forty times the amount of waste generated by human beings, generating toxic fumes that can be dangerous for workers and surrounding communities. This manure also contains high amounts of nutrients and chemical byproducts that affect surrounding environments.
There are two ways that farmers attempt to address CAFO manure: storing it in enormous waste lagoons and spreading it over fields to fertilize crops. Yet given the sheer volume of animal waste, both of these strategies can be problematic. For example, waste lagoons can breach and leach into ground or surface water, while manure on fields can run off into surrounding bodies of water. The resulting high nutrient loads can cause dead zones capable of wiping out vast swaths of marine life.
Minimizing the prevalence of CAFOs can significantly reduce agricultural pollution and help curb climate change. Animal waste, along with the production of animal feed, releases greenhouse gases that exacerbate the global climate catastrophe. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, animal supply chains are responsible for fourteen and a half percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
These statistics have led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to advocate for adopting plant-based diets and reducing meat consumption in order to mitigate climate change. Recognizing that some nations and some consumers enjoy relative food abundance and choice while others face persistent hunger, these recommendations apply primarily to high-income nations like the US that account for the greatest meat consumption, and particularly to those consumers who have the greatest purchase flexibility and easiest access to plant-based foods.
Biodiversity is crucial for the survival of our very species. Yet, conventional industrial agriculture whittles away at biological diversity by eliminating the variety of species in a given area, modifying and simplifying landscapes, and creating legions of animals who are genetically identical. Dense rainforests are converted to pasture land for cattle; bustling prairie grasslands are transformed into row upon row of corn, wheat, or soy; select breeds of chickens, now the most populous bird on the planet, are confined within industrial animal agriculture operations, especially in nations where capitalist industrial farming is the norm. While agriculture is not the only sector responsible for endangering biodiversity, industrial agriculture poses a significant threat to diversity when it comes to ecosystems, species, and genetics.
Sustainable farming, on the other hand, embraces a diversity of plants and animal species both on-farm and off-farm in order to help produce and promote healthier foods. Hedgerows can bring non-crop vegetation into fields, creating habitats for pest predators and pollinators. Agroforestry practices can allow native trees to coexist with crops like coffee that prefer shade. Sustainable farms can be places where biodiversity thrives, sometimes successfully coexisting with adjacent wildlands, while supporting sustainable diets based on locally sourced foods.
Embedded within any definition of sustainable agriculture should be active support for racial diversity and a clear, consistent eschewing of prejudice and oppression of all kinds. The American agricultural sector, which is predominantly white, has been shaped by a long history of structural racism—a legacy that continues today. Black-owned agricultural land ownership rates have fallen roughly eighty-five percent in the last century. While some BIPOC farmers in southern states are finally getting compensation for decades of violence, land theft, loan denial, and other hardships, farming in the US still has a long way to go before becoming truly diverse and equitable.
Industrial agriculture also perpetuates environmental racism. Across the US, BIPOC communities are disproportionately targeted to host CAFOs, forcing people in these communities to bear the brunt of the resulting pollution. Calls to halt the construction of new CAFOs are founded, in part, on curbing this type of discrimination, which can lower property values, hollow out communities thanks to the vertical integration of farming corporations, and present a range of negative health consequences.
CAN ANIMAL FARMING BE SUSTAINABLE?
The question of whether animal farming can ever be truly sustainable is steeped in controversy. However, what’s increasingly clear is that conventional industrial animal agriculture can likely never be considered sustainable, given the litany of negative social, environmental, and animal welfare consequences that result from intensive, extractive approaches.
Proponents of grass-fed beef argue that raising cattle on pasture land can help with carbon sequestration in the soil and that pastured cattle can exist symbiotically with the surrounding environment. While this can be true at some scales, there is not enough grassland to convert the existing US cattle herd to pastured systems or maintain US beef production levels. All but a tiny fraction of cattle raised in the US today are raised intensively, kept on pasture land for only a short period of time before they are “finished” on vast feedlots, where they are fed antibiotics and grain-based diets that encourage them to put on body weight before slaughter.
Cattle feedlots are barren and crowded, concentrating enormous volumes of animal waste. Feeding animals housed on feedlots also drives demand for feed crops such as corn and soy, much of which is not sustainably produced. In the US alone, an estimated 90 million acres of land were dedicated to producing corn in 2019, and a third of this corn went to animal feed. Even for cattle kept on pasture land for longer periods of time, far more land is required in order for them to put on weight naturally with grass, making this model of production difficult to scale. Globally, around forty percent of arable land is already used for livestock.
Compared to industrial animal agriculture, innovation in plant-based and cultivated meat offers far more sustainable options that can deliver protein needs and preferences without harming animals or the environment. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible are trailblazers in selling alternative proteins to the hearts, minds, and stomachs of consumers around the world.
Cultivated meat—real animal products grown from cell cultures—promises real meat consumption using only a fraction of the vast resources required to raise living animals, without the ethical quandary of slaughter and inhumane treatment—and all while potentially generating fewer greenhouse gases than conventional animal agriculture. With these emerging technologies on the horizon, continuing to farm animals—sustainably or not—is becoming increasingly unnecessary.
SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES
There are many ways to practice sustainable agriculture, and novel methods are constantly being developed. Below are a selection of tried and tested techniques for rendering agriculture more sustainable.
REDUCING INDUSTRIAL INPUTS
Conventional agriculture relies on artificial inputs such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to substitute for natural ecosystem function, and antibiotics and other drugs to control the growth of farmed animals. While enabling the production of high yields, these chemical inputs for plants and animals also carry serious consequences ranging from pesticide contamination to antibiotic resistance.
Organic farming’s fundamentally different approach to agriculture can reduce reliance on industrial inputs by employing a number of natural and manual replacements for synthetic compounds. Building up soil with compost and practicing crop rotation are two time-honored ways to naturally create fertile soil, allowing farms to skip synthetic fertilizers. Pulling weeds by hand can replace herbicides. It’s worth noting, however, that these solutions also come with tradeoffs and are not always feasible in every context. Compared to industrial agriculture’s chemical shortcuts, traditional sustainable methods are more labor-intensive, which may carry negative social implications in parts of the world where agricultural work is carried out primarily by women.
Closed-loop systems are another way to sustainably reduce or even eliminate industrial inputs. The idea behind closed-loop farming is to produce no waste products and import no inputs, instead making use of all materials generated during the process of production, from growing to harvesting. Plant waste that would otherwise be thrown away can be used as fertilizer or fed to animals.
NATURAL PEST ELIMINATORS
In the wild, an abundance of plant, insect, and animal species live within given habitats, achieving a balance of predators and prey that keeps ecosystems stable. Monocrops, a hallmark of industrial plant agriculture, cause drastic changes to landscapes, transforming biodiverse habitats into unnaturally simplified environments where pest species can thrive in the absence of their natural predators. With only a handful of plant species covering large areas, industrial agriculture turns crops into a tempting target for pest encroachment on a massive scale. Conventional agriculture’s response is to liberally apply pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides instead of strengthening ecosystem health and avoiding monocrops to keep pest species naturally in check.
Natural pest predators are beneficial insects that do not threaten crops and can control crop pests without the need for harsh synthetic toxins. Examples include ladybugs, praying mantises, parasitic wasps, and certain species of beetles and flies. Encouraging the proliferation of pest predators often requires the growth of biodiverse, non-crop vegetation interspersed within or adjacent to fields. Crop diversity and avoidance of insecticides are key to promoting diverse and abundant communities of beneficial species that can keep pests at bay.
FALLOW, COVER CROPS, AND CROP ROTATION
In sustainable agriculture, what occurs on farm fields in between crop harvests is just as important as what happens during planting and growing seasons. Fallow fields that are tilled and are not planted with cover crops can cause a host of problems, from soil erosion to water pollution—fields should never be allowed to go bare. Planting cover crops in between harvests can help to ensure that topsoil stays in place and can even deliver extra nutrients to the soil. Crop rotation, in which different crops are planted on the same field from one growing season to the next, is another way to make soil more fertile and healthy while reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and decreasing pest activity. Minimizing agricultural nutrient and chemical runoff is also critical for preventing water pollution; this can be achieved by planting field buffers to help catch and absorb excess nutrients before they enter bodies of water.
MANAGING WHOLE SYSTEMS AND LANDSCAPES
Figuring out what will work best for a single field of corn is difficult to accomplish unless the surrounding locale is taken into consideration. This is especially true when applying sustainable agricultural practices since these often attempt to mimic natural ecosystems and aim to deliver both food accessibility and widespread forms of economic opportunity. To decide on the best approaches to take, and to ultimately discern the effectiveness of sustainable practices, one must look beyond a single field and take a broader view.
In whole-systems and landscape approaches, gaining an understanding of neighboring cropland, nearby natural habitats, the local watershed, and the broader region in which the field is situated helps farmers get a better sense of what to expect in terms of weather, potential pests, and other variables.
Sustainable agriculture is, in many ways, a return to a more traditional way of farming that was dominant before the rise of extractive industrial agriculture and is still practiced by farmers in many parts of the world. By respecting and supporting natural processes that keep ecosystems in balance, sustainable farming practices can create food systems that are at once productive and resilient and a robust agricultural sector that can provide food and opportunity for years to come.
 On land contamination, see The Humane Society of the United States, “An HSUS Report: The Impact of Industrialized Animal Agriculture on the Environment” (HSUS, 2008), https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/hsus-report-industrialized-animal-agriculture-environment.pdf.
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 Siddharth Boudh and Jay Shankar Singh, “Pesticide Contamination: Environmental Problems and Remediation Strategies,” in Emerging and Eco-Friendly Approaches for Waste Management, ed. Ram Naresh Bharagava and Pankaj Chowdhary (Singapore: Springer, 2019), 245–69, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-8669-4_12.
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 Lora A. Morandin, Rachael F. Long, and Claire Kremen, “Hedgerows Enhance Beneficial Insects on Adjacent Tomato Fields in an Intensive Agricultural Landscape,” Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 189 (May 1, 2014): 164–70, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2014.03.030.
 F.J.J.A. Bianchi, C.J.H. Booij and T. Tscharntke, “Sustainable Pest Regulation in Agricultural Landscapes: A Review on Landscape Composition, Biodiversity and Natural Pest Control,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 273, no. 1595 (July 2006): 1715–27, https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2006.3530.
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 Clayton Campanhola and Shivaji Pandey, eds., Sustainable Food and Agriculture: An Integrated Approach (FAO and Elsevier, 2019), Chapter 29: “Landscape Approaches for Sustainable Food and Agriculture”, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-812134-4.00029-7.