Agricultural Sustainability: Farming and the Environment

What Solutions Do We Have for Agricultural Sustainability?

By Rose Morrison, managing editor of Renovated

Agriculture is one of the largest and most important industries worldwide. People rely on the environment for crops and raising animals, but the last few centuries have shown more damage by humans than good. Continuing this path would lead to detrimental consequences for the planet, such as less farmland and food availability.

How has farming harmed the environment, and what can the agricultural industry do to improve sustainability moving forward?

Further reading:

How Has Farming Harmed the Environment?

How significant is the agricultural industry? It’s responsible for 10.5% of American employment. In 2021, agriculture and food accounted for over $1.26 trillion, 5.4% of the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP). Farming is the backbone of many economies worldwide, but it comes at a price.

Farms cover large swaths of land to grow their crops. It’s difficult for farmers to manage every plant individually, so they use substances like pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals protect crops from pests like mosquitos and mice that carry diseases. They also protect the plants from weeds and other invasive species. However, problems arise with their air pollution.

Fertilizers have become an issue due to their nitrogen content. Nitrogen is essential for plants to grow, but excess amounts enter the atmosphere and cause harm. At worst, it turns into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas known to cause smog.

Another problem with air pollution is ammonia from fertilizers and livestock waste. Ammonia’s particles enter the air and human body, causing heart and lung issues. Outdoor pollution from particulate matter causes about 3.3 million deaths per year worldwide.

How Has Agriculture Contributed to Global Warming?

Greenhouse gases from fertilizers are one part of why the agricultural industry significantly contributes to global warming. The sector is responsible for nearly 18.4% of emissions, and nitrogen-based fertilizers are only a fraction of the problem.

Agriculture is also responsible for methane emissions. This pollution comes from livestock manure and agro-industrial wastewater. Methane uses oxidation to leave the atmosphere and absorbs infrared radiation from the planet’s surface, trapping heat.

Methane is one reason why global warming has worsened in the last century. A Princeton study shows that the agricultural sector contributes to 40%-46% of all global methane emissions.

Another way agriculture contributes to global warming is deforestation. Yearly, agricultural companies clear significant amounts of land to make room for crop fields and livestock production. You can see the worst of it in the Amazon. Organizations exploit the rainforest for agriculture, mining, logging and more. Despite a pandemic, deforestation increased from August 2019 to July 2020, with companies tearing down nearly 4,300 square miles of the Amazon.

Agricultural Sustainability: Green rolling hills with the ocean in the distance

How Can Agriculture Become More Sustainable?

Agriculture is a necessary part of human life, but it has come at the expense of forests and natural resources. How can the industry change and put the world on a positive path? Here are five ways farming can become more sustainable.

  1. Crop Rotation

One of the first fixes for sustainability is crop rotation. This practice entails rotating different types of crops in the same location, giving the soil more nutrients. Crop rotation goes back to the days of George Washington Carver. The Alabama scientist swapped cotton with nitrate-producing crops to heal the land.

Crop rotation is essential for agricultural sustainability. The practice helps farmers stay on the same farmland for much longer and reduces the need to clear more land. It also helps with pest management. Rotating crops removes a primary food source from a pest and replaces it with one less vulnerable.

  1. Soil Enrichment

Another solution for agriculture sustainability is paying close attention to the soil and maintaining its richness. The immediate fix is replacing harmful pesticides with ones better for the environment. Ensuring the earth is healthy leads to better and more robust crop yields for farmers.

Farmers can improve soil quality by using compost or animal manure. These materials prevent the earth from eroding and maintain nutrients such as phosphorus, calcium and magnesium. Certain crops need a particular pH level — beets and alfalfa require neutral soil between 6.5 and 7. Another way to improve soil health is to leave some residue in your fields following a harvest.

  1. Cover Crops

Some farmers leave their fields bare after harvesting, making them vulnerable during the off-season and leading to degradation. The solution is to plant cover crops.

Farmers typically use cover crops after their fall harvests. They use plants that can hold up in cold conditions, such as winter peas, buckwheat, mustard and alfalfa. They are helpful because they return nutrients to the soil and mitigate weed growth. Farmers using cover crops also reduce their reliance on fertilizers and chemicals.

  1. Efficient Water Systems

One significant effect of climate change has been droughts. Countries worldwide are experiencing them more frequently, in addition to increased flooding. Water access in places like the southwest United States is already a struggle, especially in the summer. Continued water shortages could lead to economic problems and worsen supply chain issues.

The agricultural industry can help by becoming more intelligent about its water usage. The sector accounts for about 70% of water use worldwide, so finding ways to become efficient would significantly help. First, farmers should plant crops that demand low amounts of water in dry climates. They should also use methods like drip irrigation, which drips water into the plant’s roots, reducing evaporation and water usage.

  1. No-till Farming

Tilling is a method farmers have been using since ancient times. Though it’s effective, there are more sustainable ways to sow seeds. Progressing to no-till farming is another way to maintain soil and stay on the same land for longer.

No-till farming is advantageous because it doesn’t disturb the soil. This method aims to reduce soil erosion and increase biological activity in the ground over time. Some people use herbicides in no-till farming, but using cover crops instead is a more sustainable practice.

No-till farming can also reduce a farmer’s carbon footprint. Typically, farmers use a lot of fuel for their planters, but no-till farming leads to lower usage because they’ll pass through the field fewer times. They’ll likely only need one pass-through rather than three or four. No-till farming is a terrific way to improve soil health and sustainability in agriculture.

Walls built to avoid water run-off, Andhra Pradesh, India
Walls constructed around diverse crops to avoid storm water run-off during monsoon season in Andhra Pradesh, India
Credit: Carla Antonini

Improving Agricultural Sustainability

Agriculture has been one of the most critical fields of work since ancient times. People need food, and a growing world population of over 8 billion requires a high amount of it. Technological advances have allowed farmers to produce more crops, but sustainability has become an issue. Agriculture’s carbon footprint is a significant contributor to global warming, but these five practices can improve sustainability and reduce the need for new farmland.

Rose Morrison

About the Author

Rose is the managing editor of Renovated and has been writing in the construction industry for over five years. She’s most passionate about sustainable building and incorporating similar resourceful methods into our world. For more from Rose, you can follow her on Twitter.