Photo: New Farmer Academy Intern Maddie Baker helping with a farm project at Oxbow Orchard
If there’s any industry under the scrupulous watch of sustainability activists, it’s the farming industry. Not only is the industry an essential component of our daily lives, it’s also an area in which there is a huge amount of room for improvement.
The United Nations estimates that the world population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, which is 30 short years away. In the coming three decades, food production must increase by around 70% its current rate to successfully feed a population of that size.
That seems like a tall order as is, but when you take into consideration the sustainability of current farming practices, the challenge grows. The goal of sustainable farming is to feed the human population without depleting the earth’s natural resources.
Here, we explore five sustainable farming practices divided into three main categories: creating a healthy environment, maintaining economic profitability, and fostering social and economic equity.
Creating a Healthy Environment
1. Sourcing Organic Food
Organic is a label that’s thrown around a lot these days, but what does it mean? While regulations vary from country to country, in the U.S., it means crops were grown without the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Be careful when buying, however, that the producer is up to standards and is not merely greenwashing. Greenwashing is a common practice in marketing that labels non-sustainable or organic foods and products as such. It’s worth it to dig into a business’s practices just a little more to find out if organic really means organic.
When you buy organic, the price may be higher but so is the payout. The same goes for other sustainable products, like grass-fed beef or free-range chicken eggs. Your body, small-scale farmers, and the environment will all thank you.
2. Reducing Food Waste
One of the biggest challenges facing the sustainable food industry today is reducing food waste. In highly industrialized countries like America, nearly half of all food is wasted. While much of this is due to the long distances food products travel to be sold, part of the problem is in consumer habits. A very small portion of our unused food is composted, landing tons of food waste in landfills each year. In these landfills, the food breaks down to form copious amounts of the harmful greenhouse gas methane.
Maintaining Economic Profitability
3. Constructing a Circular Economy
Sustainable farming also comes with economic benefits, to make it all the more appealing. When farmers save on fuel, calculate exact inputs, and minimize waste, they see the financial returns in both the short and long term.
The ultimate economic goal of sustainable farming is to construct a circular economy, wherein waste is reduced, mainly through the redirection of “waste” items for other farm uses and the use of more durable products. Some farmers may be hesitant to employ these methods because of the up-front costs of implementing such changes, but the financial payout makes the upgrades worth it.
4. Building a Relationship With Consumers & Community
One of the most beneficial impacts of sustainable agriculture on the consumer is the fact that they’re no longer so distanced from their food production. The farming industry can seem an abstract concept when you’re buying produce at your local supermarket. The story changes once you’re plucking fresh fruit directly from the farmer’s hands.
One Ohio farmer’s market found their products traveled an average of 28 miles to reach the market each week. For comparison, the global average is 1,500 miles. Not only will your produce be fresher and therefore possess greater nutritional value when you and your family buy sustainably, but you’ll help reduce pollution due to food transport as well.
This ground-zero food buying practice is becoming increasingly popular as farmer’s markets, community produce boxes, and other initiatives spread across the nation and world. Some consumers even become so passionate about sustainable practices in agriculture that they pursue a career in the industry, whether as a farmhand or a board member.
Fostering Social and Economic Equity
5. Equity for Workers
A glaring issue in today’s workforce is inequity. Sustainable farming aims to elevate the surrounding community, providing rural jobs and reinvesting in the local area. It also has the goal of offering fair employment conditions and wages to all who work in the farming industry.
That includes appropriate safety cautions when necessary, to protect the health and well-being of those involved in food production. For in-office farm work during COVID-19, it rings especially true that a clean work environment should be prioritized. This improves any number of things, from air quality to worker productivity.
In the larger scope of things, social justice includes the idea that all humans have a right to adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Sustainable farming can help by producing enough nutritious products to distribute to the society-at-large without damaging the natural environment.
More On Sustainable Practices
Green agricultural practices achieve their sustainability goals through many methods, including but not limited to:
- Proper runoff management.
- Minimum till and no-till farming.
- Crop rotation and diversity.
- Integrating crops and animals.
These practices all aim to reduce food and water waste, in addition to saving energy and restoring the soil. Armed with a better understanding of sustainable practices in farming, you can now incorporate small changes in your everyday life to help the cause. Composting, buying organic, and locating food close to its source are all ways you can reduce your environmental impact while supporting the agriculture of the future!