The concept of sustainability varies by industry. Within the agricultural industry, sustainability is a multifaceted concept that has become increasingly popular in recent decades.
According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, sustainable agriculture seeks to increase profitable farm income, promote environmental stewardship, enhance quality of life for farm families and communities, and increase production for human food and fiber needs. In an attempt to reach those goals, farmers who embrace sustainable agriculture may look to various practices, such as:
Cover crops: The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization that aims to employ independent science to address the planet’s most pressing problems, notes that cover crops are planted during the offseason when soils have traditionally been left bare. Cover crops can help prevent soil erosion and replenish the nutrients in the soil. Cover crops also can limit weed growth, reducing the need for herbicides that can prove harmful to the environment.
Reduce or eliminate tillage: According to the UCS, traditional plowing, or tillage, can cause a significant amount of soil loss, even as it prepares fields for planting and reduces the likelihood of weed problems. Eliminating or reducing tillage involves inserting seeds directly into undisturbed soil, which can reduce erosion and improve the health of the soil.
Integrated pest management: Integrated pest management techniques aim to minimize the use of chemical pesticides that can prove harmful to the environment and local wildlife. According to the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, IPM strategies like habitat manipulation and the planting of disease-resistant plants are designed to promote long-term prevention of pests and the damage such pests can cause.
Agroforestry: The Association for Temperate Agroforestry defines agroforestry as an intensive land management system that incorporates trees and/or shrubs to optimize the benefits they provide when deliberately combined with crops and/or livestock. The shade and shelter provided by trees and shrubs can protect plants, animals and water resources.
Crop/livestock integration: The UCS notes that there is growing evidence to suggest that the careful integration of crop and animal production can help farmers make their farms more efficient and profitable.
Sustainable agriculture is a complex concept that can benefit farmers, their local communities and the environment in myriad ways.