To better understand how we can best improve our environmental footprint of agriculture, we need to first understand many of the major problems with our currently global agricultural system.
Then we can intentionally make the necessary changes that will create a sustainable agricultural system for future generations and help to sustain the health of our global environment.
Examples of unsustainable techniques used in modern agriculture
- Using lots of chemicals
Not only are the majority of agricultural chemicals toxic to human health, they are also poisoning wildlife and pollinators, running off into water bodies, polluting land, rivers, and wetlands, and destroying important soil microbes that are critical for healthy soils.
- Growing and producing genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
GMO crops are not only detrimental to human health, they are detrimental to the environment. GMO crops have lead to a huge increase in the use of agricultural chemicals being applied to crops, and there have been cases of GMO crop contamination in non-GMO crop fields, as well as in soil and water systems.
- Growing monoculture crops
In much of the world today, the agricultural practice of growing large swaths of a single crop is leading to deforestation, widespread use of heavy machinery, and a large use of agricultural chemicals.
- Overproduction and more food waste
Despite having a world today where large portions of the human family go hungry on a daily basis, the global market economy favors the overproduction of food which leads to waste.
- Paying workers poorly under terrible working conditions
Commodity crops are often grown by workers who are paid very little and work in terrible working conditions.
- Global corporate agribusiness
Global corporate agribusiness is driving small local producers out of business because small producers cannot compete with low commodity prices on a global market. Many farmers today struggle with poverty because of the pressure for low global commodity prices in a race to the bottom.
- Growing crops on every inch of land
With the pressure from global markets to increase production, many farmers are producing crops on the entirety of their land. In many cases, there are no more “buffer strips” to protect waterways from erosion or runoff, or for habitat that remains for native species.
- Natural vegetation clearing
As more and more land is cleared and heavily plowed to make way for agriculture, natural habitat is being destroyed and the land is becoming increasingly degraded.
Negative impacts of such practices include: exposed topsoil being blown away by wind or washed away by rain, erosion due to deforestation, increased flooding, and sedimentation in rivers, lakes, and coastal areas.
- Raising animals and plants separately instead of in a carefully managed agricultural system
In the name of “efficiency,” modern industrial agriculture has separated the raising of plants and animals that once worked together in harmony.
What has resulted is anything but what nature would call efficient, having to fertilize crops because they lack nutrients, and having to manage the waste of livestock that is generated in commercial feedlot operations.
- Using manufactured fertilizers to feed the soil
Most of the fertilizers used in industrial agriculture are made from petrochemicals and only supply three basic nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. While these three nutrients may fulfill a plant’s most basic requirements for growth, the crops do not receive other nutrients, such as trace minerals, for their optimal health and for the health of those who consume them.
- Wasting water
Current agricultural practices are typically inefficient in water use. Problems such as growing high water demand crops, leaky and inefficient irrigation infrastructure, the unsustainable draining of aquifers to produce crops, and water runoff into rivers and other water bodies are a telltale sign that we can improve greatly with how we use water to grow our food.
- Feeding a grain-based diet to animals that should eat grass
Animals that biologically are meant to eat grass are not as healthy as animals that are being heavily fed on grains like corn and soybeans.
It requires significant resources and energy to grow that grain, when such animals should be eating native grass, which is basically free and doesn’t require fossil fuels and irrigation to produce.
Using food crops to produce energy is wrong-headed. It typically takes just as much fossil fuel energy to raise these crops as you get out of them when you burn them as fuel.
- Only growing a few varieties of crop plants
Because only a few varieties have been grown in commercial agriculture over the last 100 years or so, we are losing a lot of genetic diversity in our crop plants. This is a major problem, as a loss of genetic diversity makes it more difficult for our crops to adapt to changing environmental conditions and diseases.