It’s also estimated that, to feed a growing global population, water consumption by the agricultural industry needs to increase by 70%.
It’s fair to say that our most precious resource is becoming worth more than it’s weight in gold, and now is the time for us to look at how we consume and manage our water supply.
Now, while the agricultural supply chain takes in and covers more than just water, this shocking statistic highlights the important role farmers can play in building a future for the generations to come. That’s where sustainable farming comes in.
It’s hard to discuss a topic before we define what it is, so let’s start there.
Sustainability is “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.”
In terms of the environment, it’s defined as “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.”
We really like to use the 4 R’s of sustainability to help give context to the topic and provide an easy way for people to live sustainably everyday. The 4 Rs are:
Reduce - eliminate waste and reduce our levels of consumption
Reuse - instead of throwing away waste, can it be given new life?
Recycle - if you must throw it away, can it be recycled?
Rethink - stop and think about how your next purchase decision will impact the environment
Being sustainable is something a lot of us think about each day, and it’s an area that is receiving plenty of attention from business, politics, and individuals.
What is considered as sustainable in the future may be very different from what we considered it to be today. The way we define sustainability may also change, since a commonly held definition of sustainability is about meeting the needs of the current generation, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The problem arises when we stop to think about the needs of future generations. In a fast moving world, where the rate of technological improvement advances faster than Moore’s Law can keep up, what does the future of sustainability look like? What trends can we expect to shape our understanding of sustainability moving forward?
One of these trends is the growth in sustainable farming.
What is Sustainable Farming?
Sustainable farming means balancing the dual goals of farm production and responsibility to the land and people.
It means producing food or animal products without harming the natural environment, and protecting the wellbeing of those who tend the land and livestock, while also working towards improving social outcomes of the community of which the farm is a part.
Sustainable farming takes into account economic prosperity and blends this with environmental health.
Benefits of Sustainable Farming
So why do farmers choose sustainable farming? Why should consumers care? When it comes to sustainable farming, there are a wealth of benefits:
Promote biodiversity of local plant and animal life
Reduces agricultural waste and runoff
Promotes soil health and fertility
Captures carbon in the soil, fighting climate change
Promotes energy efficiency
Decreases greenhouse gas emissions
Creates habitats for beneficial insect species and pollinators
Promotes coexistence with animals and wildlife
Provides economic opportunities
Quite possibly one of the greatest benefits of adopting a sustainable farming approach is the ability to conserve water. Efficient irrigation systems, careful measuring of water use, recycling water, capturing rainwater, and treating grey water are just a few of the activities sustainable farmers do to improve their use of earth’s most precious resource.
Promote Biodiversity of Local Plant and Animal Life
Sustainability can be said to be about the interconnectedness of everything, and nowhere is this more true than on an organic, sustainable farm that promotes the growth and health of a range of flora and fauna, happily co-existing in harmony.
Reduces Agricultural Waste and Runoff
Sustainable farming, much like organic farming, uses natural inputs to fertilise crops and keep pests at bay. This shift away from chemical inputs results in less negative outcomes and healthier food. In most farms, even the waste is re-integrated into the ecosystem and does not pollute the environment.
Promotes Soil Health and Fertility
Sustainable farms often use methods such as crop rotation (planting different crops each season) and polycultures (growing multiple species in the same area) to help promote soil health. By rotating crops, nutrient levels in the soil are given time to replenish, and by growing different species together, farmers can ensure maximum utilisation of resources.
Capture Carbon in the Soil
Soil is the greatest carbon sink after the oceans, and increased levels in the ocean are already causing problems.
Working with ecology, organic farmers use diverse pastures and regenerative grazing management to create healthy soils. The relationship between plant roots and soil organisms is often minimised but it is critically important in sequestering carbon.
Promotes Energy Efficiency
Sustainable farming often relies on the use of renewable resources to power and manage the farm. This places less strain on powergrid and reduces the use of fossil fuels. Solar panels can be used to power electric fences and wind turbines can be used to capture energy. Running rivers also provide a source of hydroelectric power.
Decreases Greenhouse Gas Emissions
While the use of renewable energy is one way sustainable farms can reduce greenhouse gas, it’s not the only way. By using natural fertilisers, sustainable farming reduces the amount of CO2 released from the use and production of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilisers.
Creates Habitats for Beneficial Insect Species and Pollinators
Sustainable farmers, like organic farmers, rely on beneficial insect and bird species to act as natural pest controllers and pollinators. Building a healthy ecosystem that provides a habitat for native species not only benefits the farm, but it benefits the entire local environment.
Promotes Coexistence with Animals and Wildlife
Not only do sustainable farms encourage local wildlife to find a home, many farmers raise livestock and grow crops. Mimicking ecosystems in the wild, having both animal and plant species together is hugely beneficial, and is a farming practice known as biodynamic farming.
Provides Economic Opportunities
Sustainable farming can provide additional economic opportunities, for both the farm and employees. By growing multiple crops, farmers can diversify their harvest, reducing the risk of crop failure having a huge impact on the business. Using natural methods can also mean more work available for workers.
Sustainable Farming in Practice
Depending on the farmer you’re speaking to, and the types of crops or livestock they raise, sustainable farming can take on a wide variety of practices. These can include:
Natural Pest Management - using native bird and insect species to manage pest populations, and also acknowledging the role that pests can play in farming
Hydroponics and Aquaponics - these are two farming methods that are designed to maximise water efficiency, removing the need for soil and injecting the nutrients straight into the water source.
Crop Rotation - switching out the crops grown each year to benefit the soil and allow nutrient levels to reset.
Polycultures - growing multiple crops in the same location, again to help soil health and ensure all available nutrients are used efficiently. The species chosen usually benefit each other in a symbiotic relationship, which can lead to additional growth.
Urban Agriculture - the use of warehouses, rooftop gardens, vertical gardens and more are all examples of urban agriculture, which has been raised as a serious solution to our food supply problems.
Agroforestry - the practice involves planting trees and shrubs amongst crops, to create a favorable microclimate that maintains favorable temperature and soil humidity, while protecting crops from wind or heavy rain.
Suggested Reading: 10 Sustainable Farming Practices and Why They Matter
Sustainable Farming Represents Our Future
As we continue to further our understanding of what it means to be good custodians of the land, and we find new and innovative ways (and rediscover old techniques) of growing our crops and raising the livestock that will feed a growing population, it becomes ever more apparent that sustainability is the way forward. Balancing economic prosperity, boosting food production, promoting social wellbeing, and protecting the environment will always be a challenge, but with sustainable farming we give ourselves the best chance for success.