Sustainable agriculture turns farms into thriving ecological lands that produce food crops, as well as plants that increase farms' biodiversity while sequestering atmospheric carbon. The health of ecosystems, including soil nutrition, on the farm is a top priority when agriculture is managed sustainably.
In most traditional farming of the past, a significant amount of nutrients are removed from the soil without being replaced. Major contributing factors to the depletion of healthy soil on farms globally are:
- over-tilling the land
- monoculture (just growing one type of crop on sections of farmland, not implementing crop rotation and planting a variety of crops)
- synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
From processes like these, there is constant degradation of soil nutrients, leading to poor fertilization from year to year. On farms that use these unsustainable farming practices, there is an increase in weeds, bugs, and vermin. Basically, the farmer slowly loses control of the farm as a whole when the quality of the soil is not managed over time.
The solution to these ecological problems is sustainable agriculture. Sustainable ag. involves land-use practices that restore, protect, and maintain ecosystems and biodiversity on farms. Conventional farmlands are thus transformed into ecologically thriving carbon sinks.
Sustainable Ag. Techniques; Cover Crops, Polyculture, and more
It is important for the farmer implementing sustainable agriculture techniques to understand the relationship between all of the farm's organisms and the farm's environment; in order to optimally create biodiversity on the farm, and to focus efforts on maintaining nutrients within the farm's soil, water, and air.
A few sustainable agriculture practices that increase soil health are:
- seasonal use of cover crops
- concerted efforts to maintain proper soil nutrition
- no-till or low-till farming
- crop rotation
- polyculture (vs. monoculture)
Cover crops refer to a variety of crops grown on farmland during off-seasons in order to maintain soil health. Examples of cover crops include legumes like alfalfa, various grasses and cereal crops like rye, oats, and barley, brassicas like turnips and radishes, and turnips and non-legume broadleaves like flax and spinach.
Polyculture is also a practice of introducing a variety of crops on farmland, including multiple species of plants. In the case of polyculture, crops and plants are rotated to different sections on the farmland year-round. Even if polyculture is implemented on a farm, crop rotation and low/ no-till farming should be continually practiced year-round in order to ensure the health of a farm's ecosystems and soil.
Biodiversity of a farm's crops, plants on the farm, and other ecosystems on the farm, as well as proper soil nutrition - deter pests. Polyculture also helps maintain a farmland's healthy ecosystems; also reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Creating Carbon Sinks
Real-world examples of sustainable agriculture predominantly include farms that work to satisfy human food demand; while maintaining biodiversity and healthy ecosystems on the farmland. Sustainable agriculture transforms otherwise conventional farmland into environmentally-friendly carbon sinks.
Sustainable farms enhance environmental quality and agricultural economy through the enhancement of the health of a farmland's natural resources. For example, carbon farming is a sustainable agriculture practice that maintains healthy soils and is common practice in most organic farming. Practices to maintain soil health are found in regenerative agriculture, as well as permaculture (see the section on permaculture below, and please see Green City Times' article on Regenerative Agriculture).
Project Drawdown recognizes these sustainable practices as top climate solutions - all of which serve to create agricultural carbon sinks:
- Land is a critical component of the climate system, actively engaged in the flows of carbon, nitrogen, water, and oxygen—essential building blocks for life. Carbon is the core of trees and grasses, mammals and birds, lichens and microbes. Linking one atom to the next, and to other elements, it’s the fundamental material of all living organisms. FROM - drawdown.org/sectors/land-sinks
- Plants and healthy ecosystems have an unparalleled capacity to absorb carbon through photosynthesis and store it in living biomass. In addition, soils are, in large part, organic matter—once-living organisms, now decomposing—making them an enormous storehouse of carbon. Land can therefore be a powerful carbon sink, returning atmospheric carbon to living vegetation and soils. While the majority of heat-trapping emissions remain in the atmosphere, land sinks currently return a quarter of human-caused emissions to Earth—literally. FROM - drawdown.org/sectors/land-sinks
- Multistrata agroforestry systems mimic natural forests in structure. Multiple layers of trees and crops achieve high rates of both carbon sequestration and food production. FROM - drawdown.org/solutions/multistrata-agroforestry
- An agroforestry practice, silvopasture integrates trees, pasture, and forage, into a single system. Incorporating trees improves land health and significantly increases carbon sequestration. FROM - drawdown.org/solutions/silvopasture
- Pumping and distributing water is energy intensive. Drip and sprinkler irrigation, among other practices and technologies, make farm water use more precise and efficient. FROM - drawdown.org/solutions/farm-irrigation-efficiency
- Building on conservation agriculture with additional practices, regenerative annual cropping can include compost application, green manure, and organic production. It reduces emissions, increases soil organic matter, and sequesters carbon. FROM - drawdown.org/solutions/regenerative-annual-cropping
What are easy ways to reduce a farm's carbon footprint?
For information on how agricultural renewable resources (i.e. biomass) can be developed and optimally produced on farms, please see the following Green City Times' articles:
Besides increasing biodiversity on farms (through polyculture and agroforestry techniques, for example), maintaining healthy farm ecosystems, and a focus on soil nutrition; other critical considerations in sustainable agriculture are:
- Managing water wisely
- Minimizing air, water, and climate pollution
- Rotating crops and embracing diversity. Planting a variety of crops can have many benefits, including healthier soil and improved pest control. Crop diversity practices include intercropping (growing a mix of crops in the same area) and complex multi-year crop rotations.
- Planting cover crops. Cover crops, like clover or hairy vetch, are planted during off-season times when soils might otherwise be left bare. These crops protect and build soil health by preventing erosion, replenishing soil nutrients, and keeping weeds in check, reducing the need for herbicides.
- Reducing or eliminating tillage. Traditional plowing (tillage) prepares fields for planting and prevents weed problems, but can cause a lot of soil loss. No-till or reduced till methods, which involve inserting seeds directly into undisturbed soil, can reduce erosion and improve soil health.
- Applying integrated pest management (IPM). A range of methods, including mechanical and biological controls, can be applied systematically to keep pest populations under control while minimizing use of chemical pesticides.
- Integrating livestock and crops. Industrial agriculture tends to keep plant and animal production separate, with animals living far from the areas where their feed is produced, and crops growing far away from abundant manure fertilizers. A growing body of evidence shows that a smart integration of crop and animal production can be a recipe for more efficient, profitable farms. [BULLET POINTS FROM - ucsusa.org/what-sustainable-agriculture]
[As noted above, regenerative agriculture techniques and sustainable agriculture practices are key to reversing the global effects and negative trends of unsustainable ag. practices. Sustainable agriculture practices include increasing the use of permaculture; as well as urban and community gardening.]
The simulation of natural ecosystems, both in agriculture and green urban planning, has the potential to help reduce man’s carbon footprint on the earth.
Some fields of permaculture and urban gardening include Ecological Design, Ecological Engineering, Environmental Design, Integrated Water Resource Management, and Sustainable Architecture. All of these professions work with nature rather than against; working toward the goal of sustaining both nature and society for future generations.
The depletion of the earth's resources due to the processes of mass production and consumption, inefficient waste management, and the destruction wrought on nature due to fossil fuel infrastructure development are reasons for the need for permaculture and urban gardening techniques in agriculture.
The need to work with existing resources in order to save the environment, and people alike, is a goal that has many nations working toward carbon neutrality in agriculture, as well as eco-conscious techniques in agriculture to preserve biodiversity. Chemical fertilizers and other environmentally hazardous methods like pesticides are the way of the past in agriculture. The future of gardening/ agriculture lies in sustainable methods like urban gardening (techniques that can easily be applied to larger-scale agriculture/ farms).
Here are the major components of urban gardening::
"Container gardening: Common for people with small patios, yards, or balconies. Container gardening makes use of a variety of containers – buckets, old tires, raised beds, windowboxes, kiddie pools, barrels, shoes, and watering cans – for growing all manner of plants for food or beauty.
Indoor gardening: When no patios, decks, yards, or balconies are available, indoor gardening can also be an effective urban gardening method. Plants can be grown in containers similar to those in container gardening, as well as in indoor greenhouses or solariums (sunrooms).
Community gardening: This is a method of using outdoor public or private spaces to cultivate gardens for food or pleasure as a group and is a great choice for those with no yard or outdoor space.
Guerilla gardening: A more subversive form of urban gardening, guerilla gardening is a way of adding plants to public spaces that don’t technically belong to the gardener such as a vacant lot, median, beside a highway, or in little strips of dirt.
Greenroofs: Roofs designed with a growing medium for the purpose of cultivating plants are also a form of urban gardening and can be used to grow food, trees, and many other types of plants." from Ecolife
Other sustainable solutions for the global conservationist community; carbon offsets
In addition to sustainable agriculture practices by farmers, steps that can be taken by individuals to help with environmental sustainability include: going paperless, going vegetarian (or at least eating less red meat), recycling and buying recycled products, and using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood products.
Other personal lifestyle solutions to help with global sustainability efforts include using more cloth and alternative products (like bamboo products for sustainable lifestyles), eating less fast food, and eating vegan meals as often as possible instead of meat.
Going with a more sustainable diet is a way of supporting the use of agricultural land for regenerative farming ultimately used in diet and manufacturing of consumer products. Regenerative ag. produces organic foods sold at farmer's markets. Another easy way to support sustainability efforts is by shopping at, and supporting, farmer's markets.
Paper products were once trees, so reducing your use of paper products in your daily life will realistically translate into saving trees. Additionally, meat, and fast-food restaurants, contribute to deforestation because deforested land is often land used for cattle grazing.
In many cases, carbon offsets are purchased by international companies in industries running polluting factories, using carbon-intensive fuel for energy, and manufacturing fossil fuel intensive products; and this often includes companies involved in deforestation. However, carbon offsets can also be purchased by individuals - online, at retail outlets, gas stations, etc...
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