Conventional vs Sustainable Agriculture: Can Sustainable Agriculture Feed the World?
Agriculture has experienced a great transformation over the last three centuries. Our capacity to produce food from land has significantly improved as we adopted more intensive methods of crop cultivation. At the beginning of the 18th century, an average wheat harvest in England equaled 19 bushels per acre, while a hundred years later it was 30 bushels per acre .
Agriculture has been flourishing. Yields have been increasing, populations growing, and more lands have been converted into agricultural fields. Farms grew in size, mechanization replaced manual labor, allowing fewer people to get more work done in a day. We have been experiencing great success that enabled our society to focus on other activities than growing food for subsistence.
This may sound idyllic, but there is a problem. Continuous expansion of agriculture is not possible. In fact, it has already hit its limits, failing to address some challenges that appeared along the way.
For example, 2 billion people, that is 26.4 percent of the total world’s population, are still experiencing food insecurity . One third of the planet’s soils are degraded due to inconsiderate methods used in modern agriculture. Bees are dying because of the overuse of agrochemicals to intensively produce food. Ecosystems are disappearing to make way for ever-expanding farming grounds, and pollution plagues over natural resources. This includes drinking water contamination and increased emissions of air pollutants (also greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change).
Such series of negative effects gave rise to questions whether conventional agriculture can withstand future challenges that are linked to climate change and population growth. Scientists are clear that this will require at least 50 percent higher agricultural productivity in the next 30 years without converting more land . To accomplish this, environmental degradation has to be stopped and resources need to be managed with extreme precision.
Time has come to reassess what options we have and how can we grow enough food to feed everyone.
What is the difference between conventional and sustainable agriculture?
Three words that define conventional agriculture are: efficiency, uniformity and maximization.
The main objective of this farming system is to achieve the maximum possible yield from land. This requires inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to artificially create favorable conditions for crops. It has also led to the development of genetically modified varieties that are “programed” to give higher yields.
In conventional agriculture, farmers focus on commodity crops that are easy to transport, do not go bad during longer storage and provide a variety of consumer and non-consumer products. These crops are for their versatility considered the most lucrative option on the market.
To maximize profits, farms often specialize in growing one kind of a commodity crop on most of the land. A great example of this practice is corn. Corn fields dominate agricultural lands in the United States, spanning over an area of 97 million hectares .
By reducing diversity farmers make their work simpler and more efficient. They can optimize farm management–given that crop growing requirements, planting, maintenance (including pest control) and harvesting will be the same across the farmed land. This allows for planning ahead, investing in a specialized machinery and obtaining crop varieties that have proven to perform the best in the area.
Conventional agriculture is practical and profit driven. But there is a dark side to this approach.
This farming system doesn’t consider its profound impact on the environment. Intensive farming of only one crop type year after year wipes out whole ecosystems and leads to the disappearance of ecosystem services, like fertile topsoil replenishment, that are crucial for our success in growing safe and nutritious food in the future.
In our efforts to substitute for these services, we have to add in chemicals to help us grow food. And this raises the question of the safety and sustainability of such a farming system.
What are the main objectives of sustainable agriculture?
If conventional agriculture was characterized by efficiency, uniformity and maximization, sustainable agriculture could be described by: diversity, interconnectedness and preservation.
Sustainable farming is based on the diversity of plants and animals kept on the farm. Each element complements another. They are interconnected and support each other’s prosperity without the need of excessively aiding their development from externally sourced chemicals.
The main idea is that biodiverse systems support healthy growth and resistance of target species. Crops are capable of warding off pests and diseases naturally. They can easier withstand droughts and temperature fluctuations. Different crops slightly vary in their nutrient intake, so the nutrients are utilized smarter, which prevents their total depletion from soils.
Sustainable farms “invest” part of their production into reinvigorating agricultural land. This builds up soils rich in organic matter and improves nutrient cycles. Sustainable land management treats soils as a renewable resource that has the capacity to recover when given enough time and proper treatment.
Sustainable farms work towards achieving the balance of using resources and allowing them to renew, while providing food for our needs. That is how a self-supporting farming system capable of continuously producing healthy food without harming the environment and compromising the ability of future generations to cultivate the same soils is created.
Why is sustainable agriculture more important in today’s world?
There are a few practical reasons why food production of the future needs to move beyond the concept of conventional agriculture and switch to farming practices that are more sustainable to the needs of people and the environment.
These reasons are based on securing our future needs of:
Globally, 85 percent of farmers are small farmers, who work on less than 2 hectares of land and have limited access to resources–high percentage of these farmers live in developing countries . Intensive farming is not an option for them because these systems require a lot of external input and are rather sensitive to fluctuations.
If farmers fail to provide nutrients, timely pest treatments or irrigation, even the most premium crop varieties fail to produce better yields than traditional crops. Fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation systems and even the seeds of high yielding varieties are expensive and often need to be transported from long distances. The same goes even to high-output livestock breeds that require special feed, more medical attention and uniform conditions to live up to expectations.
Such a high demand for resources represents a significant challenge for most smallholder farmers, including farmers from developed countries with subsidized agriculture. As professor Pablo Tittonell mentions, three farmers go bankrupt every day in the Netherlands because of their inability to pay off the debts from trying to intensify their production .
Sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, uses resources with greater efficiency. It even contributes to resource conservation where possible. For example, sustainable farmers focus on building up soil organic matter through their farming practices, like no tillage, green manure or compost application. This means that soils are naturally enriched, and farmers do not have to outsource high amounts of fertilizers.
Soil organic matter provides nutrients to crops, supports microbial activity, improves physical characteristics of soils and enhances water retention which reduces the need for irrigation.
Scientists measured water holding capacity of organically-farmed soils in Switzerland and found out that the difference can be as much as 40 percent compared to conventionally-farmed soils . Numerous studies concluded that this increased water retention makes crops more resilient to droughts, which produces higher yields in times of water stress [3,7].
Sustainable agriculture stands better in this equation as it is less resource demanding than conventional farming.
While some argue that the energy output of intensive agriculture is greater than the energy it consumes because of high productivity, conventionally produced food still needs high amounts of energy sourced from fossil fuels. For example, one grain of corn is made from 70 percent of fossil fuel energy .
Conventional agriculture is based on the mechanization. Agricultural machinery consumes fuel. Manufacture of this specialized machinery needs energy during every step of the process. Irrigation systems use energy to power the pumps. Seeds, fertilizers, pesticides have to be transported from factories to distributors and then to farmers, covering large distances before reaching the field where they are applied. Each part of these processes is powered from our energy stocks.
Even the production of nitrogen fertilizer relies heavily on natural gas and coal energy. You may not have known this, but fertilizer production actually accounts for over half of total energy use in conventional agriculture .
Such a high dependency on non-renewable energy cannot continue indefinitely.
Sustainable agriculture is different. Sustainable farming systems aim to reduce the dependency of farmers on external inputs. The system is designed to recycle big part of energy on farm.
Since sustainable farms are often highly diverse with interconnected production units, crop residues or a part of the grain harvest goes to feeding farm’s livestock. This reduces the need to import feed, and at the same time supports manure production right on the farm. The cycle of energy continues when the manure is used as a fertilizer for cropland, allowing for crops to grow from this energy once again .
To make space for conventional farms, ecosystems have to disappear–soils are tilled and straightened; trees are cut down, their roots are ripped from the ground; creeks are redirected into perfectly straight channels along cropland boundaries; wetlands are dried out and native perennial vegetation is buried.
Making such radical changes to the environment in many areas around the world has triggered numerous negative effects that in the end affect our health greatly.
These effects include:
- pesticides in drinking water
- eutrophication and dead zones in lakes and coastal waters
- air pollution and increased emissions of greenhouse gases
- floods and droughts due to the removal of the permanent land cover and redirection of natural streams
- loss of pollinators, beneficial insects and natural predators
- soil erosion
- desertification and soil degradation
Things cannot continue this way. Sustainable agriculture is a good example that we can produce enough food without compromising our future by destroying the environment with everything good it provides for us.
For example, scientists from the Iowa State University set up an experiment in the most intensively farmed area of the United States–the U.S. Corn Belt. They wanted to compare how well does sustainable farming perform when compared to the conventional method of growing corn and soybean in monocultures. The results from a seven-year period (2008-2015) of sustainable three to four crop rotations including green manure cultivation reveal numerous benefits.
- 90 percent lower application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer;
- need of up to 50 percent less herbicide, which prevented 90 percent herbicide runoff in waterbodies;
- reduced soil erosion (no-till crop rotations could prevent around 90 percent of erosion);
- higher yields of corn per acre by 3 percent and soybean by more than 10 percent .
A report from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification further highlights the potential of sustainable agriculture in improving livelihoods in developing countries. The report says that the yield can raise by 30 to 170 percent under sustainable land management. The reasons are increased biodiversity on farms through practices like agroforestry, improved water use efficiency and application of soil conservation measures, such as no-till or cover cropping [7,11].
But these are not the only benefits. Sustainable farming helps to restore degraded lands that have been abandoned by farmers for being infertile. A great example are 390,000 hectares of restored farming land in Ethiopia. Formerly degraded land has been recently recovered through the practices like crop rotation, terracing to reduce water erosion, rotational grazing and establishment of a permanent vegetation cover .
Many practices in sustainable farming can greatly reduce the need for more land to produce food, preventing further destruction of natural ecosystems.
#4 Climate resilience
Conventional farms are deprived of diversity. Farmers focus all their energy and resources into growing one, maybe two main crops, or one livestock species. The land they own is also solely used for this purpose.
Specializing production makes work easier and economical, but it also increases the risk of harvest loss. In case of unexpected weather like a prolonged period of drought, the chances are that conventional farmers will lose a big part of the harvest. This can happen repeatedly, few years in a row due to the weather uncertainty that is caused by climate change.
For example, researchers observed in the U.S. Corn Belt that the corn yields decrease by almost one third if it rains more in spring. This is not good news for most farmers because the climate change models predict an increase in spring rains in the area .
Sustainable farming is a feasible alternative. By cultivating biodiversity and promoting soil health, this farming system has greater potential to withstand stressful events linked to climate change.
Soils rich in organic matter absorb water with greater efficiency, therefore reducing runoff and negative effects of erosion. These soils store water for longer time periods, which naturally boosts crop resistance to droughts.
Since more frequent floods and droughts are expected in many places around the world, sustainable agriculture incorporates smart methods of rainwater harvesting. Farmers, for example, create ponds in places where water accumulates naturally, or incorporate swales and terracing systems on their farm. Some even apply a more extensive measure of recreating wetlands with perennial vegetation on a part of their farm, as this greatly improves water management on the farm and in the surrounding environment.
Genetic and species diversity increases adaptability of farms to climate change. Even when one crop fails, farmers still have other crops that may not be as much affected and will still provide enough or even more harvest in relation to current weather conditions.
Climate change also alters life cycles of pests, weeds and diseases in many complex ways—often increasing their numbers or completed life cycles. High diversity greatly helps in preventing the damage caused by their unexpected infestation.
This is where genetic diversity proves to be a particularly effective solution, as an example of rice farmers from China demonstrates. After losing harvest to rice blast disease, these farmers decided to mix their disease susceptible rice varieties with resistant ones. The results were immediate. Their yields increased by 89 percent and only 6 percent of rice was affected by the disease .
Additional advantage of sustainably farmed soils is that they sequester carbon. Soil organic matter along with perennial vegetation, like trees and shrubs that can be often found on sustainable farms, serve as natural carbon sinks, helping to offset some of our excessive carbon dioxide emissions, therefore, mitigating climate change.
Conventional farming has introduced industrial approach to agriculture. The system’s objective has moved beyond growing food for people. Instead, it has become a business that is set to power global economies.
One example of how modern agriculture works is the corn industry. Corn is the most grown crop in the United States, spanning over 97 million acres, requiring over 5 million tons of nitrogen fertilizers every year, needing large amounts of non-renewable energy and consuming 5.6 cubic miles of water .
Farmers prefer corn monoculture because it is a very productive crop, but also a resource intensive crop. Perhaps, this wouldn’t be such a problem if it were used for our consumption, but it is not. 40 percent of corn is used for ethanol production for biofuels, 36 percent is fed to factory farmed livestock and most of the remaining amount is either exported or used in a high-fructose corn syrup production .
The complicated story of corn continues even further–with large numbers of that livestock raised on the corn feed exported to other countries. This means that the resources which went into the corn production are not used to feed local people .
Sustainable agriculture is based on principles that aim on improving livelihoods of rural populations by empowering small farmers to grow locally-sourced food that is diverse, nutritious and safe, while maintaining decent living conditions for their families.
In Afghanistan, egg and poultry meat production increased after the Government in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) established a training program for women to learn sustainable techniques of increasing their backyard poultry yields. The program also gave rise to a creation of poultry producer groups that mediate farmers’ access to the market . Through this initiative, producers gained possibilities to make income from their farming efforts and consumers benefit from easier access to local animal protein.
One of the key principles of sustainable agriculture is that the food is grown in the area, using local resources to feed local people, which is the most direct and the least wasteful way of managing diminishing resources. Farmers are more connected with their customers, they are part of the community, relying on others and providing for them as well. This encourages better quality of products, but also the improvement of living conditions in rural areas.
Localized approach encourages respect for the land and responsible management of resources.
For example, dairy farmers in Thailand reduced the need for clearing native forests to make way for feed crops by improving productivity of their agricultural lands. They switched from monoculture planting to intercropping of cowpeas and cassava. The intercropping system has delivered better yields, producing enough feed to sustain dairy production from the existing agricultural land .
Can sustainable agriculture feed the world?
Our food production system is at the breaking point. Conventional farming yields large amounts of products for our use, but it uses resources faster than they can recover. If we continue this way, at some point we will have to face the moment when our lands will fail to produce enough food. Soils will be too exhausted. Water levels will be too low, and our supplies of nutrients will be too poor.
Sustainable agriculture is already proving that it is capable of producing food for growing populations. Compared to conventional agriculture, sustainable farming practices offer a combination of methods that regenerate soils, save water and energy, and provide greater diversity of nutrients for our consumption .
The ways in which this farming system works are diverse, which also makes them adaptable to specific conditions in different locations. Farmers can select what works best for them and for the needs of the community. When done properly, the production can be upscaled without increasing the demand on resources or needing more expensive equipment, which opens up equal income possibilities for small farmers and women.
This helps to alleviate poverty of rural communities that are dependent on agriculture as their only source of income. With the money these people earn by selling their harvest, they can afford to buy more diverse, nutritious food to keep their families healthy and hunger free over longer periods of time.
Sustainable agriculture has the power to connect people together, cover basic nutritional needs of communities and secure their food supply in challenging times without compromising their future capacity of producing food.
Farming sustainability is guided by interconnected principles of being economically viable for farmers, socially just to communities and environmentally-friendly. These are the pillars of a healthy development that should be able to sustain the growing population in the years to come.