Sustainable Agriculture Basics
Most organizations who train farmers in impoverished countries champion ‘sustainable agriculture,’ and who wouldn’t? Self-explanatory though it may sound, ‘sustainable agriculture’ encompasses a variety of techniques that benefit people economically and physically while still protecting the environment. Here are some sustainable agriculture basics:
1. Crop Rotation
Crop rotation is one of the earliest methods of sustainable farming, and has been employed since the mid-19th century. A farmer who plants fields of corn year after year eventually depletes his soil of essential nutrients. Because these are required for healthy corn to grow, the farmer must replenish his fields with fertilizers that contain elements like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
This is a problem for farmers in countries without developed infrastructures. Because transporting the fertilizer becomes so labor intensive, the price skyrockets.
Crop rotation is the natural solution to this particular conundrum. Studies have shown that corn grown biennially, with soybeans grown in the same fields on the off years, yields 5 to 20 percent more harvest.
But it’s not just soil health that crop rotation affects. It is an essential part of another technique called ‘Integrated pest management.’
2. Integrated Pest Management
The same crop planted year after year provides a reliable food source for insects that prey upon it. Replacing that food source with another breaks down the reproductive cycle of the insect population, ultimately controlling the insects’ numbers.
Integrated Pest Management also advocates the reintroduction of insects’ natural predators. Bats, birds and spiders all play a role in managing pests, though they are often killed off by insecticides.
3. Water Conservation
One of the most important aspects of sustainable farming is water conservation. Nearly 70 percent of the world’s water consumption goes to the agriculture sector. This amount can be minimized by ensuring that irrigation systems are in order and effective and by preventing water evaporation using cover crops and mulch.
The greatest way to conserve water is to plant crops in regions similar to that of their native climates. Transporting large amounts of water to sustain non-native plants is, at least, uneconomical. It is commonly practiced in the industry, nonetheless. In Spain, ‘summer crops’ like tomatoes and melons are grown during the winter at the cost of terribly water-intensive irrigation systems.
On the other hand, many varieties of amaranth and barley are drought-resistant; they thrive in areas with very little rain.
Weeds are perhaps the obstacle sustainable farmers can say the least about. On small farms, some advocate removing them by hand. On larger farms that is implausible. Other people propose burning fields after harvest to prevent weeds from spreading seeds. This, though effective, is a source of pollution and a potential health hazard to farmhands.
5. Sustainable is not Organic
A sustainable farm is not always an organic farm. Often, the only way to deal with pests, weeds and the like is to use commercial products. In practice, sustainable farming seeks to make farms healthier for people and their environment. They are not meant to bankrupt the farmer in the pursuit of a totally ‘green’ enterprise, nor are they meant to be advertised by those who make minimal effort to be sustainable.
Sustainable farming is an endeavor requiring moderation, effort and strategy, but the benefits are worth it.
– Olivia Kostreva
Sources: Discovery, National Geographic, Agriculture Sustainability Institute
Photo: The Atlantic