By Joe Doherty of Atkins
To feed a growing global population, farmers have adopted a manner of agricultural techniques to drive away pests and increase crop production. While these might be effective at increasing yields, they’re not sustainable. An increasing dependency on monoculture increases the risk of crop failure.
Meanwhile, the reckless use of toxic pesticides has major implications for human health, not to mention the wider ecosystem. There’s also the fact that agriculture, particularly livestock production, makes a sizable contribution to global carbon emissions.
In an era where the impact of climate change can no longer be ignored, there’s no place for unsustainable agricultural practices.
See Also: Sustainable Agriculture: The Environmental Impact of Farming
The Impact of Unsustainable Agriculture
In agriculture, the issue of sustainability is a multifaceted one. Genetically modified crops are one such problem. Although some governments have placed an outright ban on genetically modified foods, around 70 countries grow or import GM crops and produce. Even if this produce itself doesn’t pose an immediate risk to human health, the chemicals required to facilitate production do.
Monoculture is another significant problem. Although focusing on producing a single crop is efficient, it’s not sustainable. There’s an increased risk of crop failure and invasive pests, leading to a dependency on toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, monoculture and deforestation go hand in hand, with many farmers clearing significant portions of land to plant crops.
A shift to monoculture has also meant that many heirloom varieties have been lost over the past century. This has led to a huge loss of genetic diversity that may never be recovered. Furthermore, farmers are being pushed to produce higher yields in less time. This means more natural habitat needs to be cleared to make way for crop fields. This not only dives away endangered animals and destroys natural vegetation, but it also destroys ecosystems.
The sad thing is, none of this needs to happen. Although billions of people go hungry every day, we’re overproducing food and a significant amount of that produce is wasted. A more holistic approach to agriculture can resolve many of these issues. Below, we’ll explore just a few of the ways we can rethink our approach to farming.
Urban Farming Practices
It’s not just unsustainable production that’s contributing to food’s carbon footprint. Transporting food within and between countries is also a major contributor to carbon emissions. It’s estimated that around 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon emissions are produced from transporting food internationally. This pales in comparison to the 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted from transporting produce within the countries it’s harvested.
One of the simplest ways to tackle this issue is to localise food production, shortening the gap between source and destination. Urban agriculture is an ideal solution. This innovative approach is being used on a small scale already, with many urbanites growing their own produce on balconies or in city gardens. However, while the potential for urban farming is significant, this lucrative alternative to conventional agriculture has a long way to go.
Hydroponic farming techniques can help support urban agriculture planning. Unlike traditional farming, hydroponic agriculture requires relatively little square footage and no soil. Instead, crops are nourished by nutrient-rich water.
Hydroponic crops can also be read alongside aquatic livestock. Aquaponics has been around for many years in the form of fish farms. However, the combination of hydroponics and aquaponics is still a fairly new initiative. An efficient aquaponic system can make use of the waste material from aquaculture, providing hydroponic plants with a rich and replenishable source of fertiliser. Wastewater from crop rearing can also be recycled back to fisheries.
The great thing about aquaponic and hydroponic growing systems is that they’re scalable. They’re a good fit for small-scale urban sites and can also be used domestically. However, there’s also the potential to deploy these systems on commercial scales.
Biodynamic farming is considered a holistic approach to agriculture. In short, biodynamics involves seeing a farm as a single organism. Livestock species and crop varieties need to be carefully selected, with each one having a beneficial impact on every other in the ecosystem.
Provided they’re reared responsibly, livestock animals will provide a high-quality source of fertiliser that can be used to encourage optimal plant growth and profitable yields. Another key aspect of biodynamics is a focus on biodiversity. This goes beyond livestock and plants to include promoting insect life that can be beneficial to vegetation.
Ultimately, biodynamics strives to reduce the dependency on outside sources. Soil health and fertility should be maintained internally with organic sources, rather than rely on external input. Biodynamic agriculture can be used on conventional farms and vineyards, but can also be utilised in back garden vegetable patches.
Global food production has led to a reliance on monoculture. The majority of crops grown commercially might be more marketable and easy to transport, but this dependence has had disastrous consequences for heirloom and heritage varieties.
In Europe, as many as 2,000 vegetable cultivars have been lost since the 1970s. In the United Kingdom, more than 80% of traditional apple orchards have been lost.
All of this has throttled genetic variety in the crops we grow and the food on our plates. What’s more, short-term benefits like extended shelf life pale in comparison to increased sensitivity to pests, disease and environmental changes. A single outbreak can leave an entire harvest ruined. In some countries, this can mean thousands go hungry. In the Western world, it can put a farming operation out of business.
To preserve true biodiversity, we need to think seriously about reintroducing heirloom and heritage varieties. Heirloom vegetables are typically more flavourful, but they rarely produce the same yields as their domesticated descendants. However, they have a rich genetic heritage that can be used to combat rising food scarcity. The genetic traits found in many heirloom varieties can be used to create hardy hybrid species in the future.
Sustainable Livestock Production
Although more of us than ever before are embracing plant-based diets, livestock production still accounts for around 43% of all agricultural output. Livestock production practices vary widely between countries. At commercial scales, the environmental impact of livestock production can be devastating. Furthermore, there are also animal welfare concerns to consider.
Factory farming techniques aren’t just expensive and damaging to the environment, they’re also harmful to animal health. Contagious diseases like tuberculosis and brucellosis are rife in cattle livestock, while clostridiosis and influenza are major concerns for poultry farming. Zoonotic diseases also have the potential to make the jump to people. Meanwhile, industrial livestock production has been linked to increasing antibiotic resistance in humans.
Rethinking our approach to livestock benefits everyone. Animals enjoy a better quality of life and, provided they’ve been left to graze freely, are at less risk of contagious diseases. Healthier and happier livestock will also translate into better produce. It might not seem the most efficient way of rearing livestock, but the buoyant market for organic produce demonstrates there’s a real appetite for this kind of product.
Sustainable livestock production can also bolster other sustainable farming techniques. Free-range cattle can help aerate the soil as they graze, while the manure they leave behind provides an all-natural source of fertiliser. This all feeds back into the concept of biodynamics.
Organic Pest Control
Synthetic pesticides have long been considered a necessary evil. While these chemicals have made it possible for monoculture farms to produce huge crop yields, there’s no less place for them in a sustainable future.
Toxic chemicals might keep pests away, but they can contaminate surface and ground water. They can also harm the long-term fertility of the soil. Furthermore, farmers need to be incredibly precise when administering pesticides. If they contaminate the wrong vegetation, they can disrupt the wider ecosystem.
Thankfully, there are several sustainable alternatives that farmers can turn to. Abandoning monoculture and introducing a more diverse variety of crops will go a long way in ensuring pests can’t destroy an entire harvest. Regularly rotating crops is also effective. Ultimately, the main goal is to disrupt food sources for potential pests.
Sustainable Agriculture is the Way Forward for Farming
Unsustainable farming techniques have no place in the agriculture of tomorrow, especially as we continue to overproduce and waste billions of tonnes of food annually. What’s more, to combat rising temperatures, we need to rethink our reliance on monoculture and carbon-dependent production.
Biodynamic agriculture provides farmers with a sustainable template. This holistic approach yields instant benefits, but also provides long-term advantages. It reduces the need for chemical fertilisers, while regular crop rotation provides a natural defence against common pests. Reintroducing heirloom crops is also essential. It not only promotes biodiversity but also ensures vital genetic traits aren’t sacrificed for convenience.
Sustainable techniques like urban farming also need to be embraced. Currently, it might only be used on a small scale, but it reduces the strain on valuable green belt land. Hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture can also be introduced here, with both of these farming systems being easily scalable.
Author Bio: Joe Doherty is the eCommerce manager at Atkins, a farm and garden machinery business in Ireland. They sell farm parts, garden parts, garden machinery, and more.