How Can We Create Sustainable Farmland?

By Rose Morrison, managing editor of Renovated

Despite the Earth’s inherent ability to grow food organically, humans have found a way to make farmland harsh on soil and waterways. Modern agriculture tends to strip the planet’s nutrients and pollutes aquatic biomes with pollutants and runoff. How did humanity get to this point in agriculture and should there be any optimism for recovery?

Creating sustainable farmland is possible and humans have the resources and knowledge to engage with this practice now. Previous generations used techniques to farm ethically, caring for the ground while using it for their gain. It’s possible to generate enough food for the planet — to do so, humanity must edit their current farming practices to more sustainable alternatives.

Further reading:

Poor Regulation Enforcement

Massive factory farms with amateur oversight may operate without the proper paperwork — this is how 2,400 hogs produced copious amounts of food with no manure disposal plans. Examples like this highlight a few federal concerns, like low accountability priority and numerous regulations gaps. Factory farm outfits could operate for years, not abiding by safety or health benchmarks, before getting caught — if they ever do. Not only does this put consumers’ health at risk, but it also puts wildlife and the environment at equally greater risk.

Inadequate housing for barn animals causes the spread of disease and pollutants, while monocultures and unkempt farms spread chemical contaminants into the water, air and wildlife. Even expertise and technological assistance can’t mitigate mass and unmonitored clearcutting of forest ecosystems. All of this happens because there aren’t enough enforcers of agricultural guidelines. Luckily, humanity can control farmland for improved sustainability and morality.

One way to curb this is reducing farmer desperation. Megafarms contract independent operations to survive — these agreements keep a roof over their heads while climate change makes their sector more challenging. However, this increases hostility as farmers bid, relying on more unethical practices to increase output.

Dismantling megafarms and giving agency back to independent farmers will increase sustainability threefold. First, it will allow farmers to revert to healthier farming practices. Second, it can enable law regulation enforcement to keep better tabs on individual properties instead of nebulous megafarm contracts. Third, it will enable younger generations to pursue farming — a generation disenchanted by the price of land, corporate greed and systemic oppression of marginalized groups. These side effects must happen simultaneously to make farming more stable for future generations.

Green sustainable farmland with rolling hills beyond and a blue sky
Shot in the agricultural heartland of California. This is the side of the Golden State you don’t see so often.
Credit: Adele Payman

Antiquated Technology

Despite the old-fashioned association with farming, the practice incorporates so much technology that it needs to be able to implement more as electronics become more productive. The problem with the sector is a reluctance to embrace contemporary tech when these resources could save the industry. Here are some examples of outdated methods that have modern solutions:

  • Irrigation: Open-duct irrigation welcomes the evaporation of necessary water and easy pollution and spread of harmful substances. Sturdy pipe irrigation — resilient against environmental stressors and more easily maintained — will increase efficiency and reduce environmental degradation.
  • Fertilizer: Chemical-laden fertilizers could upgrade to organic, natural alternatives such as manure or supplement soil with compost.
  • Resource monitoring: Internet of Things technologies could monitor sustainable farmlands for soil and air quality. It could reveal the effects of invasive species or blights while informing farmers how to optimize their land with evidence-backed recommendations healthily.
  • Tools and equipment: Modern rakes, hoes, manual tools and farm vehicles have improved in recent years. They are made of sturdier materials and use fewer resources to create and use. It will also implement new technologies for the modern farmer, like drones to survey crops.

These technological improvements reduce the likelihood of unexpected obstacles hurting the farm’s well-being. Proper water distribution, fertilizer management and land oversight will prevent land erosion, plant illness and soil abuse.

Farmland at sunset with a wind farm on the distant hills
Agricultural land in Mölsheim, Germany
Credit: Karsten Wuerth

Inadequate Education

Creating sustainable farmlands that support a growing population requires everyone to have a foundational knowledge of ethical farming practices, especially as some resources become more scarce and sustainable farming will have to adapt. Younger generations are already disinterested in pursuing agriculture compared to previous ones and educational systems aren’t willing to assert sustainable farming education yet.

If interest arises, it may come outside of formal education. Thus, individuals rely on internet content to grow their knowledge, where potentially conflicting, false or unsubstantiated claims generate poor farming behaviors. Sustainable farming can’t happen without honest transferral of understanding and consistency throughout the industry.

Primary environmental education could create a basis for upcoming generations. However, this requires stricter cohesion among science curricula to teach sustainable farming instead of modern practices. Obtaining sameness across all schools in a region — let alone a country — would be a formidable task for farmers and teachers. Instructors could relay this information comparatively, illuminating the methods of past generations and comparing them to factory farming practices now.

Education like this would not necessarily instruct students how to farm but what negatively impacts the environment based on human influence. It can highlight the agricultural industry, as it’s a top emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in most countries worldwide.

Formal instruction could also prioritize what most don’t know about — state and federal interactions. Those outside the industry don’t need to be intimately familiar. However, knowing the current state of agriculture at the governmental level can help inform future voters about legislation. Those wanting to pursue the work must find resources to stay up-to-date with ordinances, taxes and environmental regulations they may not have considered otherwise.

A mentality like this demonstrates how much farming is an ongoing learning experience and education can instill this expectation. It’s one of the fastest-changing industries, as the climate crisis forces farmers to be creative and resourceful.

Growing Food for a Sustainable Future

Creating sustainable farmland requires an overhaul of modern agricultural thinking. Current practices rely on expedited production instead of the planet’s long-term health. These methods will generate countless harvests in the short term, leaving the future with no healthy soil to continue growing.

It’s possible to produce food at a rate to sustain humanity while practicing more kindness to the environment and it must become a priority for civilization’s betterment. With these shifts, humans can become better farmers and environmental stewards.

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.