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More often than not, when we enter a grocery store, we are presented with “normal” products and products that claim to be “all-natural”. The biggest difference between these two types of food seems to be their look and their price, given that the “natural” ones are almost always more expensive but less attractive. In actuality, the biggest difference is behind the scenes of their production.
The “normal” ones are produced using industrialized agriculture, while the “natural” ones are produced using sustainable agriculture. We’ve heard of many different sustainabilities, such as sustainable fashion, living, architecture, and others, but sustainable agriculture and its advantages and disadvantages are not often talked about. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of sustainable agriculture?
The advantages of sustainable agriculture are cost reduction, biodiversity, social equality, control of air pollution, and soil erosion, and it advocates for better treatment of animals. There are also some disadvantages, such as limited use of land, lowered income, bigger consumption of time and effort, and shorter shelf life of products.
Since the end of World War II, agriculture has changed drastically. New technologies were used and, alongside increased chemical use and mechanization, food and fiber productivity soared. These changes undoubtedly had many positive effects and reduced many risks in farming. Unfortunately, that made the cost of production significantly higher.
Some other problems arose, such as groundwater contamination, continuing neglect of the living and working conditions for the farm laborers, the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities, topsoil depletion, and the decline of family farms.
During the last twenty years, a growing movement has emerged and it started to question the role of agriculture establishment in promoting practices that contribute to these social problems. This movement is gathering increasing support and acceptance within mainstream agriculture.
What is Sustainable Agriculture?
There are two types of agriculture. The majority of food that we consume is produced utilizing industrialized agriculture. That is the type of agriculture where large amounts of crops and livestock are produced using industrial techniques for sale. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on chemicals and enhancers such as pesticides, genetically modified organisms, and fertilizers. It uses a large number of fossil fuels and large machines to manage the fields. Even though this type of agriculture made it possible to produce large amounts of food, there has been a shift towards sustainable agriculture because of the negative effects of agriculture on our ecological system.
There has been a decline in soil productivity, as well as a rise in desertification, which was caused by overgrazing. Water is being polluted by fertilizers, salts, pesticides, and manures. Pesticides are also very often found in groundwater beneath agricultural areas. Such reduced quality of water impacts not only agricultural production, but also drinking water and fishery production. Water scarcity became a problem because of the overuse of surface and groundwater for irrigation, with no regard for the water’s natural cycle of availability.
Because of the overuse of pesticides, 400 insects and mite pests, as well as more than 70 fungal pathogens have become resistant. Another increasing problem is decreased genetic diversity because of the reliance on genetic uniformity in crops and livestock breeds.
Industrialized agriculture is closely linked to global climate change. Deforestation of tropical forests and destruction of native vegetation for agricultural production plays a large role in elevated levels of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses.
But ecological concerns are not the only reason why there has been a shift towards sustainable agriculture. Economic pressure in keeping up with big farms has led to a huge loss of small, family farms. This contributes to the disintegration of rural communities.
As the world population continues to grow, so does the urgency of making long-term food security.
Sustainable agriculture is a kind of agriculture that concentrates on the production of long-term crops and livestock while having minimal impact on the environment. It involves farming systems that are able to maintain their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems are required to be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally safe.
There is a good balance between the need for food production and the preservation of the ecological system within the environment. There are several overall goals linked to sustainable agriculture other than food production. They are conserving water, reduced usage of chemicals and pesticides, and promoting biodiversity in crops and the ecosystem.
There are several methods used in sustainable agriculture.
1. Crop rotation
Crop rotation is one of the best techniques used in sustainable agriculture. It is used to avoid the consequences of planting the same crops in the same soil year after year and helps prevent pest problems.
2. Polyculture farming
This method is somewhat similar to crop rotation, as it tries to copy natural principles to achieve the best yields. Multiple species are grown in the same area, creating high biodiversity. That makes the system more resilient to weather and temperature fluctuations.
Permaculture is a food production system that is designed to minimize waste and increase production efficiency. Some methods used in permaculture include growing grain without tillage, herb and plant spirals, keyhole and mandala gardens, and creating swales on contour to hold water high on the landscape.
4. Biodynamic farming
Biodynamic farming combines ecological and holistic growing methods based on the philosophy of “anthroposophy”. It implements practices such as composting, using animal manure from farmed animals, and cover cropping. It can be applied to farms that grow a variety of food.
5. Bio intensive Integrated pest management
Integrated pest management is an approach which relies on biological methods rather than chemical. Once the pest problem is identified it responds by using biocontrol agents such as ladybirds.
6. Cover crops
Cover crops are planted to cover soil rather than for the purpose of being harvested. Those are for example clover or oat and they can prevent soil erosion, manage soil fertility, suppress the growth of weeds, and enhance the quality of the soil.
Agroforestry has become very important for farmers in dry regions with soils susceptible to desertification. Trees and shrubs are grown amongst crops or grazing land, combining both forestry and agriculture practices for long-lasting, productive, and diverse land use. Trees also act as tools to help keep the acceptable temperature, stabilize soil and soil humidity, minimize nutrient runoff, and protect crops from wind and heavy rain.
8. Natural pest predators
This method views the farm as an ecosystem, rather than just a factory in order to maintain effective control over pests. It uses animals and birds that are natural predators of agricultural pests.
What Are the Advantages of Sustainable Agriculture?
1. Saves energy for future
Unlike industrial agriculture which relies on nonrenewable energy resources, sustainable agricultural systems have reduced the need for fossil fuels and other nonrenewable energy sources.
2. Control of air pollution and soil erosion
Since industrial agriculture affects air quality with smoke from agricultural burning, pesticide, nitrous oxide emissions from the use of nitrogen fertilizer, sustainable agriculture offers some ways to improve it. Such solutions include planting windbreaks, using appropriate levels of tillage, and incorporating crop residue into the soil. To prevent soil erosion, sustainable agriculture manages irrigation to reduce runoff, reduces tillage, and keeps the soil covered with plants.
3. Social equality
Working in sustainable agriculture offers workers a more competitive salary and benefits. They work in better and fair conditions and have a better quality of life and living conditions.
- Reducing cost production
Because the energy used in sustainable agriculture is renewable, the need for expensive fossil fuels is eliminated, thus lowering the cost of production.
A wide range of plants and animals is produced on sustainable farms, thus creating biodiversity. Long-term use of pesticides and chemical pesticides damages soil and that’s why plants are rotated every season which helps prevent diseases and pest infestations and enrich the soil.
- Better for animals
In sustainable agriculture, animals are taken care of better and treated with respect. Their production consists of selecting appropriate animal species, nutrition, reproduction, herd health, and grazing management. That helps the overall long term development of livestock. Animal husbandry is done in a way that protects animals’ health.
What Are the Disadvantages of Sustainable Agriculture?
While there are many advantages to sustainable agriculture, there are also a few disadvantages.
- Limited use of land
The main disadvantage is the limited use of land, which makes it difficult to produce large quantities of food. Therefore mass production is not possible.
- It takes more work
Since the use of machines is minimal or eliminated, it takes more time and people to successfully produce plants, which slows down the production.
- Shorter shelf life
Decomposing occurs faster in food that is produced sustainably, causing it to have a shorter shelf life. If a shipment gets delayed, there is a big chance that it will never get to the supermarket because it will already be spoiled.
- Less fertile lands
It is quite hard to increase the fertility of land just by rotating crops and without the use of fertilizers and other chemicals.
Because the land is used sparingly, the income that is generated from farming is very limited.