Romanian countryside, you will see people working on their fields from the early morning until the evening. You will see them manually weeding rows of corn and beans, you will see them carefully planting potatoes, cabbage, onions, carrots, or beets on some plots, while sowing clover and alfalfa over other parts as animal fodder. Every inch of their land is utilized for producing food for their families and their animals.
These are subsistence farmers. Their land is their biggest treasure and they care for it more than they care for their own health, often working outside under the scorching summer sun to ensure the best harvest, to stack up hay rich in meadow flowers from their high-value grasslands, or spending all day in the rain preparing the soil for the next season.
These people have unique relationship with the land. Their families have been farming the same land for generations and the first lesson they have learnt was to do it sustainably. Otherwise, their harvest would fail. They would end up hungry in the winter. They would have to watch their kids and animals suffer.
While it is clear that not everyone can become a subsistence farmer and agriculture needs to supply increasing amounts of food to growing populations at low prices, it is also clear that it cannot be achieved in the highly industrial and damaging manner it has been doing in the last few decades. We have increasing evidence that in many places this has led to soil degradation and environmental pollution which impairs health of many people even far away from the affected areas.
This time, when we are challenged by the changing climate, calls for a smarter approach to farming. An approach for the long-term sustainability of our food production systems.
What is meant by sustainable agriculture?
A sustainable food system is one that 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 following principles:
- The needs of people: provide nutrient rich food for farmers, farm families, communities, help to maintain good public health, but also improving the quality of life in rural areas.
- Profit: a farming operation must be profitable, or it will go out of business quickly.
- The planet and the environment: farming practices must be ecologically sound, promoting healthy biodiversity and sensible management of natural resources.
Benefits of sustainable agriculture for the environment and our wellbeing
Unlike intensive agriculture, sustainable farming has a great potential for benefiting the environment and preserving natural resources. It does so by following natural cycles, recycling nutrients and water, while omitting excessive use of agricultural chemicals.
Sustainable agriculture strives to help the environment by:
- Reducing agricultural runoff;
- Preventing pollution of lakes and rivers;
- Saving water;
- Naturally maintaining soil fertility by recycling nutrients on farm;
- Enhancing carbon sequestration by soils and perennial vegetation;
- Promoting energy efficiency of farming operations;
- Decreasing emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases;
- Creating habitats for pollinators and beneficial insects;
- Ensuring welfare of farm animals but also providing space for the respectful coexistence with native wildlife .
Our wellbeing is closely linked to the health of the environment where we live. Since sustainable farming methods affect the environment in a positive way, they also contribute to our quality of life.
Firstly, and most importantly, sustainable agriculture produces safe food with high nutritional value. The quality of food is now more important than ever before. Numerous studies found out that the nutritional content of grains and fruits with vegetables keeps decreasing. Scientists believe that popular high yielding varieties of crops often have poorer capacity of absorbing nutrients from the soil due to their weaker root systems, which can result in the lower nutritional content of the final produce .
And negative effects of increased pesticide levels in foods produced from intensively farmed lands do not even have to be mentioned. Everyone probably agrees that less pesticides and other chemicals used to grow food is only better for us.
Food diversity is also much greater from sustainable farms, as they are not solely focused on producing cash crops like corn or wheat. Instead, they often cultivate local varieties in highly diversified farming systems.
But that’s not all. There are more advantages to sustainable farming in terms of providing economic opportunities to rural communities, such as giving jobs to young people and supporting socio-economic development of rural areas. At the same time, sustainable food production is better adaptable to climate change and helps to strengthen ecosystem resilience . Both of these characteristics are extremely important for building a successful food production system that will withstand future challenges.
10 Sustainable farming methods and practices
Sustainable farming system doesn’t have to be only organic agriculture. There are more methods that overlap in many principles that are sustainable in the long-run and may be 100 percent organic or at least from the biggest part.
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 agriculture.
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 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.
#2 Biodynamic farming
Biodynamics incorporates ecological and holistic growing practices that are based upon the philosophy of “anthroposophy.” Farmers are encouraged to manage their farm as one living organism where cultivated species intertwine and support each other’s health.
This includes raising animals on a farm in a way that they help replenish soil fertility and enhance plant growth. One of the building pillars of biodynamics is high biodiversity of plants, animals and beneficial insects. The goal is the creation of a resilient ecosystem that benefits us and other living organisms.
Biodynamics emphasizes the importance of reducing the use of off-site inputs (such as importing soil fertility) by generating the necessary health and soil fertility for food production onsite. This is achieved through the implementation of practices such as composting, application of animal manure from farmed animals, cover cropping or rotating complementary crops.
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 animals during different moon and sun cycles.
Biodynamic practices can be applied to farms that grow variety of produce, gardens, vineyards, and other forms of agriculture.
#3 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.
#4 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.
#5 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.
In agroforestry systems, trees create a favorable microclimate that maintains favorable temperature and soil humidity, while protecting crops from wind or heavy rain. Trees have another important role. They stabilize soils, minimize nutrient runoff and improve soil structure. This is the reason why agroforestry has become one of the powerful tools of farmers in dry regions with soils susceptible to desertification.
Besides promoting healthy growth of food crops and maintaining soil fertility, trees in this farming system provide wood and fruits as an additional source of income for farmers. In these systems, possibilities for product diversification are many. Farmers can go even as far as growing a whole edible forest.
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.
#6 Polycultures and crop rotation
Both of these techniques are trying to mimic natural principles to achieve the best yields.
Polyculture farming involves growing multiple crop species in one area. These species are often complementary to each other and aim at producing greater diversity of products from one plot while fully utilizing available resources. High biodiversity makes the system more resilient to weather fluctuations, promotes balanced diet and applies natural mechanisms to preserve soil fertility.
Crop rotation is based on growing a series of different types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons. The planned rotation may vary from a growing season to a few years or even longer periods. It is one of the most effective agricultural control strategies that is used in preventing the loss of soil fertility.
By diversifying the crops that are grown on an area of land in polycultures and through the rotation of crops that are grown, farmers can greatly reduce the opportunity for disease and pests to take hold. It is because their development cycles get interrupted by changing crops. These practices also lead to reductions in the need to apply fertilizers and pesticides.
#7 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 available .
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 environment .
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 varieties of plants and save their seeds, many of the remaining varieties of our food plants could be lost to the world forever.
Losing traditional varieties could be compared to losing an important source of genetic information and part of our ancestral heritage, as these plants have adapted precisely to make the most out of local conditions. Generations of our ancestors have spent decades of selecting only the best seeds that have provided the most nutritious and flavored food. Their quality is often supreme, and it is rather wasteful to let them disappear.
It was these varieties that have nourished our ancestors, and therefore, contributed to who we are today. They deserve to be preserved because their unique traits may help us in establishing future climate-resistant varieties that will nourish our children.
#8 Natural animal raising
Sustainable animal farming is possible and is better for everyone. Not only that it is good for the environment and our nutritional needs, it is also good for the animals. Animals that are raised on the pasture or in their preferred environment live under less stress, closer to their natural way of living. They can have fulfilling social interactions with other animals and behave in a way that is natural to them (roll in the mud, pick plants they want to eat, rest side by side, play).
Allowing animals to graze and live in pasture is much healthier for animals than confined animal feeding operations are. You will even notice that these animals are cleaner, smell better and have that curious spark in their eyes. Their health and happiness reflect in the quality of products we get from them. Tastier meat, yellower eggs, milk richer in the mineral and vitamin content.
Since animals and grasslands have evolved in a mutually beneficial relationship, livestock grazing and other pastoral systems enrich the land in multiple ways. Manure returns nutrients back into the soil, completing the natural nutrient cycle. Soils get aerated by the animal hoof action and greater diversity of plants flourishes because animals suppress dominant species, providing opportunity for a variety of rarer plants.
Grasses also grow stronger root systems and abundant tufts after being grazed and trampled under the hooves. This helps to prevent erosion, build soil through the rich growth of diverse pasture grasses, sequester carbon emissions in the soil from the atmosphere, and conserve grassland habitats that can host many other species of wildlife and insects .
#9 Natural pest management
One of the main aims of sustainable agricultural practices is the prevention of the use of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals that should suppress pest infestations and pathogens. Applying increasing amounts of chemicals to grow food is not part of the long-term solution and doesn’t help our health either. Farmers from sustainable farms, therefore, look for solutions in nature and try to recreate conditions that do not favor pests.
They achieve this through the set of practices that strengthen natural resilience of crops and practices that interrupt pest cycles.
Greater diversity of crops, intercropping and crop rotations are among the methods that have proven successful. The key to their success lies in dispersing preferred food sources of pests by blending in crops they do not favor. Additionally, diverse crops attract diverse insects and some of them are natural predators of pests, helping to keep their populations within limits, thus mimicking how the real ecosystem balances itself out.
Farmers can also release or provide habitat for populations of beneficial insects (such as ladybugs, lacewings, and fly parasites), as well as encourage other organisms (such as birds and bats) that will serve as predators of crop-eating pest insects.
#10 Mulching, groundcovers, and manual weed control
Farmers and other growers can dramatically reduce the growth of weeds and conserve soil moisture by covering the soil around their plants through the use of mulching and ground covers.
By naturally suppressing weed growth, these practices greatly reduce, or in some cases even eliminate, the need to apply herbicides to kill weeds. And the most stubborn weeds that appear from time to time can be easily controlled by hand because their numbers are minimized.
We can see this practice widely applied on strawberry fields where plants need to have larger spacing between them, which would give the opportunity for weeds to take over. A layer of protective material on top of the soil even keeps strawberries from rotting too fast, as they do not lay directly on the hard soil while ripening. Afterall, as their name suggests “straw-berries,” people have known about the benefits of growing these yummy fruits surrounded by the straw ground cover for many generations.
Organic mulch material like, for example, wood chips, straw or grass clippings also improves nutrient retention in soils and encourages activity of soil microorganisms that help create healthy aerated soil structure. This reduces the need for tillage as soils are less compacted .