It was 51 years ago in 1970 when more than 20 million people took to the streets to voice their concerns over environmental degradation, making the first Earth Day the largest single-day protest in human history.
Since then, the environmental movement has been shaped by the concept of sustainability: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
And of those needs, perhaps none is more important than food. Meeting the food security needs of the future will be a difficult task: the UN estimates that agricultural output will need to double by 2050 to feed the planet.
Not only will agriculture have to increase its output, but it will have to do so sustainably. This Earth Day, let’s take a look at 7 make-or-break factors that agriculture must incorporate in order to reach a more sustainable future.
1. Industrial Agriculture vs Agroecology
The industrial revolution touched every aspect of human society, and agriculture was no exception. The industrial agriculture model of the twentieth century, while successful at producing an abundance of food, often takes a large toll on the land as it bends nature to its will.
The problem with the industrial model is that it sees a farm as a machine. But in reality, a farm is simply an ecosystem embedded within a series larger ecosystems.
A sustainable agriculture model recognizes that long-term viability comes by working with nature rather than against it.
The good news is there is a whole field of research that does exactly that. It’s called agroecology, and it’s being implemented on an ever-larger scale. And not a moment too soon: incorporating agroecology will be key to meeting ag’s long-term sustainability goals.
2. Water: Sustainable Agriculture Manages Water Wisely
Agriculture requires plentiful clean water for crops and livestock, but agricultural practices themselves can harm water quality through soil erosion, manure runoff, nitrogen over-fertilization, excess phosphorus, and other pollutants.
As the United Nations Water Action Decade initiative notes, “Agriculture accounts for 70% of total water consumption worldwide and is the single-largest contributor of non-point-source pollution to surface water and groundwater.” Simply put, this must change.
3. Soil: The Foundation of Sustainable Agriculture
Industrial agriculture practices such as synthetic fertilizer application and monocropping harm soil health over time, requiring ever greater man-made inputs. In addition to soil degradation and topsoil loss, these practices contribute to the release of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming and climate change.
Sustainable agriculture continually looks for ways to enhance soil health with eco-friendly farming practices ways while industrial agriculture can only try to mitigate its own negative impacts rather than changing the practices at the root of the problem.
4. Biodiversity: Sustainable Agriculture Supports Biodiversity
The vast landscapes of monocropping on industrial agriculture’s megafarms are the exact opposite of what marks a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem. According to a 2017 article in Biodiversity, “Agriculture is the largest contributor to biodiversity loss with expanding impacts due to changing consumption patterns and growing populations.”
Source: Farming First
Some argue for an intensification of agriculture on existing farmland in order to set other land aside for biodiversity preservation. Others disagree with this approach and advocate for a multifunctional landscape approach appropriate to each site-level context.
5. Pollution: Sustainable Agriculture Minimizes Pollution
For many generations, agricultural practices were largely sustainable and did not result in significant levels of pollution. Our ancestors were largely eco-friendly farmers. But with the industrial agriculture’s focus on optimizing yields with excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides – not to mention poor animal management practices – agricultural pollution is a serious issue affecting water quality, soil quality, air quality, and human health.
Fortunately, many techniques are being explored that can reduce the amount of pollution generated by agriculture. For example, tillage is often a source of environmental damage, and can be reduced by no-till farming techniques. Proper nutrient management techniques can also prevent dangerous nitrogen and phosphorus from reaching waterways.
6. Climate Change: Nothing Matters More
The potential for catastrophic consequences from climate change present humanity with the most dire threat of all. Unless carbon emissions can be drastically reduced to prevent further global warming, climate change trumps all other environmental and social issues. We have one planet to live on and we’re running the risk of rendering it largely uninhabitable.
Source: US EPA
While the above chart shows that agriculture makes the smallest contribution of greenhouse gases in the US, globally it’s nearly the largest. When it comes to global warming and climate change, every sector must do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
7: Justice: People, Planet, Profits
For too long, social justice and environmental justice have been thought of as two separate and distinct pursuits. In reality, they are inextricably intertwined or two sides of the same coin. Nowhere is this more evident than in agriculture, well known for its tendency to exploit workers in its quest for cheap labor.
Sustainable agriculture offers a different path that recognizes a triple bottom line of truly valuing people, planet, and profits. It is time for more farmers to learn how they can do well by doing good—doing right by people and the planet we all depend on. Let this be our commitment on this Earth Day.