many negative impacts on our planet, agriculture can have positive effects on the environment when approached in a sustainable manner. In this article, we will discuss how humanity’s involvement in agricultural activities can be intentionally restorative to the environment instead of being destructive.
Inspiration to conserve nature
Agriculture can encourage people to interact with nature in a positive way, inspiring them to conserve it. Producing our food from the land has always been a direct link for humanity to nature. If nature is treated with respect when we engage in food production, and if we earnestly seek to learn what we can from our interactions with nature, it may cause people to appreciate and value nature in ways that they haven’t before, inspiring them to preserve it.
Fair trade and sustainable agriculture can help to preserve ecosystems. For example, fair trade chocolate and coffee from rainforests encourages sustainable management of the rainforests that the trees are growing in. Fair trade also helps native people groups to retain their traditional ways of life in a way that works in harmony with local ecosystems and gives incentives to continue to protect those ecosystems¹.
Cover crops can enrich the soil
Cover crops like clover and other nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants help to bring up nitrogen from deep in the soil to where it can be used by other plants.
Crop plants produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide
Plants and trees in agricultural systems help to retain and add water to underground aquifers. This process is most effective when the crops being grown are perennials that continue to grow every year and have deep, well-established root systems.
Carbon sequestration with animal agriculture
When properly managed in a sustainable system such as in rotational grazing systems, grazing animals can help to store carbon in the soil instead of in the atmosphere, building soil ecology and health.
Reuse of water resources
In certain forms of agriculture, properly processed sewage, wastewater, and sludge can be used on the landscape instead of disposing of such wastes in the ocean.
Soil retention and erosion prevention
In sustainable agricultural systems, especially perennial systems, having vegetation with deep roots on the landscape can help to hold in soil and prevent erosion. This is especially the case when farmers have constructed swales and other types of earthworks that help to stabilize steep slopes.
Preservation of important habitats
Agricultural systems that work in harmony with nature such as organic, permaculture, and biodynamic systems can include many natural habitats, such as open meadow habitat that is important for species such as waterfowl, amphibians, and for pollinators such as butterflies and honeybees. Some species may actually increase in number due to agricultural activities, such as populations of the North American White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which do very well in open farm field habitat.
Maintaining land for agricultural use can also prevent that land from being developed and urbanized, where it is much more difficult for many species to find suitable habitat and survive.
Setting back ecological succession
Some species need early successional habitat, such as prairies, to survive and thrive. Open meadow habitat and native wildflowers are important for many pollinators like some birds and bees.
Without farmland, succession may need to be deliberately set back by management activities, such as prescribed burning, to help early successional species survive. Intentional burning is one of the primary ways that native people groups managed the landscape in North America prior to European settlement to provide for their own agricultural and hunting activities².
Climate change mitigation
The plants in perennial agricultural systems such as fruit and nut trees in agroforestry and food forests could help sequester carbon from the atmosphere and fight climate change.
Localization of food production system
Urban agriculture on small scales can help to localize food production, reducing the overall environmental footprint of our modern food systems. Benefits include reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced transportation requirements, and reduced energy required for food production.