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Sustainable Agriculture: What Is It and How Can We Support It?

Sustainable Agriculture: What Is It and How Can We Support It?

Agriculture is a vital industry that is ingrained in both the economy and our daily lives. You may know that large farms produce much of the food we eat, but you may not realize that items like crayons, detergents, and X-ray film are also byproducts of the industry. Since these products are so prevalent in everyday life, it’s essential to ensure that the processes by which they are made don’t harm our environment.

The sad reality is that, currently, many common agricultural practices are placing immense strain on the Earth. For instance, livestock farming emits a huge proportion of the greenhouse gasses that are heating the planet. Other negative impacts of agriculture can also include pollution of air, soil, and water from pesticides and fertilizers, the effects of which can last for decades. What is the solution? Sustainable agriculture!

What does sustainable agriculture look like?

The short answer is that more sustainable agriculture can be achieved in a number of ways. There isn’t one set of standards or practices (yet), but there is a growing movement and guidance from several organizations. These organizations include the UN Environment Programme and the American Farm Bureau Federation, among many others!

Resource Reliance & Emissions

With that being said, what does it mean to apply this guidance toward sustainable agricultural practices? While the most effective solution to fight climate change is the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions, some proposed practices can help mitigate their impacts. Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and removing carbon dioxide, the most commonly produced greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere and then storing it. The great news is that this process occurs naturally through our forests and wetlands, but the better news is that technological innovation can expand it! One recent project from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education helped farmers increase the amount of organic matter in their soil, thereby increasing the opportunities for carbon sequestration. This project alone helped over 61 farmers to improve their soil and use their farms to reduce the impacts of climate change!

Livestock Farming

In the world of agriculture, cows are a hot-button issue. In the United States, the top source of methane emissions is not major corporations, transportation, or any of the other usual suspects–it’s cattle. Some studies show that cows can individually belch upward of 200 pounds of methane annually! This methane production can be heavily impacted by diet. Many dairy cattle graze primarily on ryegrass, but some Northeastern dairy farmers have transitioned to feeding their cows brassicas, also known as cruciferous vegetables. Early studies found that this new diet reduces cattle methane outputs by about 50%!

Community efforts toward sustainable agriculture can also have a huge impact. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture notes that pork is critical to many cultural practices and celebrations on the island, and a popular meat in general. Some pork farms have struggled to meet local demand, leading to the creation of the Hawaii Swine Producers Cooperative. While the primary goal of the cooperative is improved operational efficiency, members utilize an innovative Inoculated Deep Litter System (IDLS). This system leads to a number of benefits for pork farmers and the world at large, including an increase in the nutrient content of surrounding soil and lower environmental impacts compared to traditional pork farming practices.

Ensuring High Crop Yields

A major concern in the world of sustainable agriculture is ensuring that environmentally friendly practices don’t lead to lower crop yields. Luckily, there are many examples of people balancing both of these goals. Nolan Parker, a corn and cotton farmer from Louisiana, noted that, while farmers generally try to comply with environmental programs that increase nitrogen-use efficiency, many farms are still applying too much nitrogen. This can lead to nitrogen runoff in waterways, which has a number of negative effects on aquatic plants as well as health risks to humans. Parker engineered drones to collect data from corn and cotton crops and used this data to determine the optimal amount of nitrogen to apply. The crops he studied achieved maximum yield with much lower nitrogen application than what was standardly being used. In one cotton plot, he even found that he could end up with roughly the same yield if he cut nitrogen use in half! Lowered nitrogen use, like many other sustainable agricultural practices, saves farmers money and puts less strain on the planet.

& Much More!

These are just some examples of the most successful moves toward sustainable agricultural practices, but there are many more. Generally, innovations such as targeted reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, adoption of alternative energy on farms, organic matter additions, mixed species grazing, prioritization of heritage/heirloom breeds, and prioritization of biological diversity have also yielded positive results.

How can I incorporate it into my life?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way–growing your own food is a fantastic way to promote sustainable agriculture. Whether you have the land necessary to establish a mini-farm of your own, you're considering indoor gardening and hydroponics, or even looking to work with or establish a community garden, you can’t go wrong engaging with small-scale agriculture. At the end of the day, although some of these practices may be relatively low cost and have a low barrier of entry, they can also be incredibly time-consuming. What are your options if you, like many of us, lead a busy life and just want to go grocery shopping?

One option is to look at brands that practice regenerative farming. Regenerative farming prioritizes high soil health as a combatant to climate change. With the concept of regenerative foods becoming increasingly popular, there’s been a sharp increase in the usage of this label on grocery shelves. These products may still be easier to find at stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, but many websites and organizations, such as Regenerative Organic Alliance, offer a list of brands that utilize these practices. Looking for those at your local supermarket can be a great first step!

Shopping at farmer’s markets or from local farm stands can be a great way to discuss these practices with the people who are actually producing what you’re buying. Products from small, local farms may not have the grocery store label, or be in grocery stores at all, but may implement many sustainable agricultural processes. Even if the farm itself doesn’t strive to be sustainable, shopping for food locally can still be a great way to offset some of the environmental impact of long-distance shipping and unnecessary packaging.

How else can we as individuals help? Try experimenting with lowering your meat and dairy intake! The less meat and dairy we eat, the less demand we create in the market, and the less cows will be in the fields. Not only does this lower methane production, but it saves innumerable resources that are currently being spent to feed and home these cows. The waste of energy from these resources far outweighs the amount of energy that humans gain from consuming meat and dairy. This doesn’t mean you have to go vegetarian or vegan! We at Just Honest are huge believers that any little bit helps. Some studies show that transitioning to a plant-based diet for even just one day a week could lead to a reduction of over 200 pounds in carbon dioxide emissions annually. Participating in the “Meatless Monday” trend throughout the year reduces the average person’s overall meat intake by around 15%, which is roughly the equivalent of taking your car off the road for over 300 miles. Just make sure to replace these foods with other plant-based proteins!

How do you prioritize sustainability when you’re shopping for food? Let us know!

Feb 22nd 2024 Madison Arenaz

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