does not require chemicals, conserves energy and water, emphasizes local production, decreases inputs and utilizes resources more efficiently on site, values biodiversity and ecology, and works within our global natural resource limitations. In order for agriculture to be truly sustainable, it must incorporate the needs of people (farmers, farm families, communities, and human health), profit (a farming operation must be profitable or it will go out of business quickly), and the planet (farming practices must be ecologically sound).
The following ten sustainable farming methods and practices are just a few examples of the many ways that we can achieve a much more sustainable food system.
- Permaculture. Permaculture is a design system that applies principles that are found in nature to the development of human settlements, allowing humanity to live in harmony with the natural world. Permaculture principles and ethics can be applied to almost any area of living, including local economies, energy systems, water supplies, housing systems, and food production.
Foundational to producing food through permaculture is intention, design, and “working smarter not harder” to banish waste and to create efficient systems. There is a particular emphasis on the use of perennial crops such as fruit trees, nut trees, and shrubs that all function together in a designed system that mimics the how plants in a natural ecosystem would function.
Permaculture design techniques include herb spirals, hugelkultur garden beds, keyhole and mandala gardens, sheet mulching, growing grain without tillage, each plant serving multiple purposes, and creating swales on contour to hold water high on the landscape.
- Biodynamics. Biodynamics incorporates ecological and holistic growing practices that are based upon the philosophy of “anthroposophy.” Biodynamics emphasizes the importance of reducing the use of off-site inputs (such as importing soil fertility) by generating the necessary health and fertility for food production onsite. It also places great importance on working with the natural phenomenon of the cosmos and its influences upon the heath of the soil, plants, and animals¹.
Biodynamic practices have been applied to farms, gardens, vineyards, and other forms of agriculture¹.
- Hydroponics and Aquaponics. These innovative farming techniques involve the growing of plants without soil, nourishing the plants through specialized nutrients that are added to water.
In hydroponic systems, crops are grown with the roots directly in a mineral solution or with the roots in an inert medium like gravel or perlite.
Aquaponics combines the raising of aquatic animals (such as fish) with the growing of hydroponic crops. In aquaponic systems, the water containing the waste material from the aquaculture fish is used to nourish the hydroponic plants. After the water is used by the plants, the water is then recirculated back into the system to be reused by the fish.
Both hydroponic and aquaponic systems are available in a variety of scales, from small home-scale systems to commercial-scale systems.
- Urban Agriculture. The need to localize our food system requires that we grow food much closer to home, including in cities. Since most of the global population is predicted to live in cities in the future, there is a tremendous opportunity for urban agriculture to make a significant positive impact moving forward when it comes to how we produce our food around the world.
Today, many innovative and sustainable growing techniques are already being used in cities, including backyard farms and gardens, community gardens, rooftop farms, growing crops in urban greenhouses, indoor hydroponic farms, and perhaps even growing food inside urban farm towers someday.
- Agroforestry and Food Forests. Agroforestry involves the growth of trees and shrubs amongst crops or grazing land. Agroforestry systems can combine both agriculture and forestry practices for long-lasting, productive, and diverse land use when approached sustainably.
Patterned after natural forest ecosystems, food forests (also known as “forest gardens”) are designed permaculture systems that consist of a multilayered edible “forest.” Such a “forest” is composed almost entirely of perennial food plants, including a canopy of tall and dwarf fruit and nut trees, a fruit shrub layer, layers of perennial herbs, mushrooms and vegetables at the ground level, climbing plants, and root vegetables underground. Food forest systems are very productive, due to both the diversity of plants that are growing there, and all of the plants within the system that are taking advantage of each existing niche within the system.
- Polycultures and Crop Rotation. By diversifying the crops that are grown on an area of land and through the rotation of crops that are grown, farmers can greatly reduce the opportunity for disease and pests to take hold. These practices also lead to reductions in the need to apply fertilizers and pesticides.
- Growth of heirloom and older varieties. Today, due to the industrialization of the global food system, only a few varieties of our food plants are grown commercially. This situation evolved in order to meet market demand for the viability of produce to travel long distances and to be stored for long periods of time. Over the last 100 years, the world has lost almost 90 percent of the fruit and vegetable seed varieties that were once available².
This reduced genetic variety in our food crop species reduces those species’ opportunity to adapt to changes in climate, diseases, and pest conditions in the environment².
There is currently a great need to grow heirloom and older varieties of crops in order to preserve the biodiversity of seeds. If gardeners and farmers do not continue to grow heirloom and other older and varieties of plants and save their seed, many of the remaining varieties of our food plants could be lost to the world forever.
- Natural Animal Raising. Allowing animals to graze and live in pasture is much healthier for animals than confined animal feeding operations are. Livestock grazing and pasture systems also help to prevent erosion, build soil through the growth of pasture grasses, sequesters carbon emissions in the soil from the atmosphere, improves plant growth and diversity, and conserves wildlife habitat³.
- Natural Pest Management. Farmers and other growers can release and provide habitat for populations of beneficial insects (such as ladybugs, lacewings, and fly parasites), as well as other organisms (such as birds and bats) that will serve as predators of crop-eating pest insects.
- Mulching, groundcovers, and manual control. Farmers and other growers can dramatically reduce the growth of weeds and conserve soil moisture through the use of mulching and ground covers. Often, these practices greatly reduce, or in some cases, can even eliminate, the need to apply herbicides to kill weeds. For smaller farming operations, weeds can be easily controlled by hand if these techniques have been used.