as we know it, would not have been possible without agriculture. It was through the cultivation of nutritional sources of food that the structure of early societies could diversify and focus on various tasks. Without the need to move to better hunting grounds or spend time on dangerous quests after seasonal sources of food dissipated, early humans were able to settle and use their energy towards manufacturing sophisticated tools and building permanent dwellings.
As time passed, agriculture became the most dominant land use on the planet, feeding a booming population, while accounting for 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals, as well as reducing the natural habitat of 53% of threatened terrestrial species1. Regardless of farming methods, agriculture alters the original ecosystem and thus affects the environment.
Whether this change has come with negative or positive consequences depends largely only on our approach, because agriculture can have positive effects on the environment when done sustainably. Sustainable management of our land can help restore soil fertility, prevent water pollution and decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from this important economic sector.
You may think it sounds counter-intuitive, but keep on reading if you want to learn how our involvement in agricultural activities can actually restore the environment instead of depleting our natural resources.
How does agriculture benefit our environment?
- Agriculture inspires people
- Agriculture preserves ecosystems
Both methods naturally maintain and enrich these habitats, promoting healthy regrowth of unique high-biodiversity vegetation. The importance of these grasslands has been recognized by the European Union, and the concept of High Nature Value farmland was created to provide incentives for farmers to protect these areas and manage them accordingly3.
Other examples from our daily life are fair trade goods. Fair trade chocolate and coffee from rainforests encourages sustainable management of rainforests from where these goods originate. Fair trade also helps native people retain their traditional ways of life in a way that works in harmony with local ecosystems and gives incentives to continue to protect them4.
- Agriculture creates habitats
Some species even increase in number due to agricultural activities. One such species is the North American White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which does very well in open farm field habitat.
Maintaining land for agricultural use can also prevent that land from being developed and urbanized, in areas where native species have difficulty finding original habitat. For this purpose, the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA) created seven voluntary land conservation programs. One of them offers yearly payment to farmers for not cultivating land with high environmental value. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is aimed at protecting native species and conserving soils by taking the land out of agricultural production.
- Agriculture sets back ecological succession
Intentional burning was one of the primary ways that native people managed the landscape in North America prior to European settlement in order to provide for their own agricultural and hunting activities5.
- Agriculture boosts soil fertility
Soils rich in organic matter and flourishing with life also contain greater concentrations of the natural enemies of pests, thus supporting the growth of more resilient crops. According to Dr. Elaine Ingham, one teaspoon of healthy soil can contain up to 1 billion helpful bacteria, while concentration in intensively farmed soils might drop to one hundred6.
- Agriculture sequesters carbon
Carbon is also sequestered by soils, which have a natural carbon carrying capacity that increases when soils are managed with minimum disturbance.
For example, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions states that U.S. arable soils currently sequester 20 million metric tons of carbon per year and their full potential can be up to 7 times higher, if some soil conservation practices were applied 7.
Interestingly, carbon can be reduced even by a livestock farm. In rotational grazing systems, animals help to store carbon in the soil. Through grazing for a limited time period in one area, biodiversity of native plants increases because grasses have time to regrow equally without one species taking over and becoming invasive. Richer and better quality pasture means more organic material entering soils, which makes soils healthy and increases their capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere8.
- Agriculture retains soil and prevents erosion
In perennial systems, vegetation with deep roots helps to hold the soil together and prevent erosion. This is especially the case when farmers have constructed swales and other types of earthworks that help to stabilize steep slopes, or when applying techniques with low soil disturbance such as no-tillage.
- Agriculture has a role in the water cycle
A successful strategy that has been applied already by our ancestors is to plant trees, bushes and grasses mixed together. By combining plants of different sizes, soils are evenly covered and can withstand torrential rains without being washed away. This improves soil structure and enables rainwater infiltration. Once water enters the soil, it passes through different soil layers all the time getting rid of pollutants until it reaches groundwater reservoirs perfectly clean and safe for us to drink.
Examples of some perennial plants grown on farms are alfalfa, fruit trees, olive trees, berries and grapes. Together, they act as an important buffer in the landscape, preventing flooding, reducing water pollution from agricultural runoff and preventing erosion, while providing us with nutritious food at the same time.
- Agriculture can conserve water
In certain forms of agriculture, properly processed sewage, wastewater, and sludge can be used on the landscape instead of disposing it as waste. In these cases, wisely chosen vegetation acts as a “living filter”, getting rid of pollutants, while utilizing water for growing. This method saves farmers; money, conserves water, and recycles nutrients.
- Agriculture provides food from limited sources
As the benefits are becoming more and more acknowledged, the trend of urban farming is starting to become quite popular. Besides connecting people together and with nature, urban farms supply food to about 700 million city dwellers. And by achieving maximum use of available resources, an area of one square meter can produce up to 20kg of food each year.
Aren’t these perfect arguments for how great agriculture can be, if we only switched to more ecologically-friendly methods and returned to a chemical-free approach? It is our collective responsibility to eliminate negative impacts of food production and focus on achieving balance between the land’s productivity and the preservation of natural habitats.