Sustainable Agriculture


Sustainable agriculture is an approach to farming intended to meet society's present food and textile needs, without compromising the ability for current or future generations to meet their needs. Agriculture has an enormous environmental footprint, playing a significant role in causing climate change, water scarcity, water pollution, land degradation, deforestation and other processes. Industrial agriculture both causes environmental degradation and is impacted by these changes. Sustainable agriculture consists of environment friendly methods of farming that allow the production of crops or livestock without damage to human or natural systems. It involves preventing adverse effects to soil, water, biodiversity, surrounding or downstream resources—as well as to those working or living on the farm or in neighboring areas.

Early Agriculture

Agriculture is the practice of cultivating plants and livestock. Agriculture was the key development in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that enabled people to live in cities. Historians theorize that agriculture began thousands of years ago, after humans started gathering wild grains beginning at least 105,000 years ago. Evidence shows that nascent farmers began to plant them around 11,500 years ago. Pigs, sheep, and cattle were domesticated over 10,000 years ago. Plants were independently cultivated in at least 11 regions of the world.

Industrial Agriculture

Industrial agriculture arose hand in hand with the Industrial Revolution in general. Industrial agriculture based on large-scale monoculture in the twentieth century came to dominate agricultural output, though about 2 billion people still depend on subsistence agriculture today. Advances in organic chemistry, plant nutrition, and discovery of vitamins and their role in animal nutrition were key factors in the rapid expansion of Industrial agriculture.

Organic chemistry enabled scientists to identify the elements nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (referred by the acronym NPK) as critical factors in plant growth. This led to the manufacturing of synthetic fertilizers, making possible more intensive types of agriculture. The discovery of vitamins for animal nutrition, in the first two decades of the 20th century, led to vitamin supplements, which allowed certain livestock to be raised indoors, reducing their exposure to adverse natural elements. The discovery of antibiotics and vaccines facilitated raising livestock in concentrated, controlled animal feed operations by reducing diseases caused by crowding. Chemicals developed for use in World War II gave rise to synthetic pesticides. Developments in shipping networks and technology have made long-distance distribution of agricultural produce feasible.

Agricultural production across the world doubled four times between 1820 and 1975 to feed a global population of one billion human beings in 1800 and 6.5 billion in 2002. During the same period, the number of people involved in farming dropped as the process became more automated. In the 1930s, 24 percent of the American population worked in agriculture compared to 1.5 percent in 2002. In 1940, each farm worker supplied 11 consumers, whereas in 2002, each worker supplied 90 consumers. The number of farms has also decreased, and their ownership is more concentrated. In the U.S., four companies produce 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 57 percent of pigs, and produce 50 percent of chickens, cited as an example of "vertical integration" by the president of the U.S. National Farmers' Union.

In 1967, there were one million pig farms in America; as of 2002, there were 114,000, with 80 million pigs (out of 95 million) produced each year on factory farms, according to the U.S. National Pork Producers Council. According to the World Watch Institute, 74 percent of the world's poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs are produced this way.

Environmental Impact of Industrial Agriculture

Industrial agriculture uses huge amounts of water, energy, and industrial chemicals; increasing pollution in the arable land, usable water and atmosphere. Herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, and animal waste products are accumulating in ground and surface waters. Because the complexity and interconnectedness of the Earth's ecosystems many of the negative effects of industrial agriculture remote go far beyond remote fields and farms.

For example, nitrogen compounds from the Midwest travel down the Mississippi to degrade coastal fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. Another effect of industrial agriculture is rapidly developing resistance among pests is rendering our arsenal of herbicides and insecticides increasingly ineffective. Chemicals used in industrial agriculture, as well as the practice of monoculture, have also been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder which has led to a collapse in bee populations. Agricultural production is highly dependent on bee pollination to pollinate many varieties of plants, fruits and vegetables.

Carbon Footprint of Industrial Agriculture

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides annual estimates of man-made greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by emissions source. These reports highlight U.S. agriculture’s minimal contribution to total U.S. emissions, making up about 10% of total emissions. Current research shows how productivity gains in crop and livestock production help agriculture reduce per-unit emissions. Another takeaway from the EPA's report is how increased investment in agricultural research is helping farmers and ranchers play a direct role in capturing more carbon in the soils with voluntary and incentive-based practices and markets.

Sustainable Agriculture

Growers may use methods to promote soil health, minimize water use, and lower pollution levels on the farm. Sustainable farmers develop flexible business process and farming practices. Elements of sustainable agriculture can include permaculture, agroforestry, mixed farming, multiple cropping, and crop rotation.Consumers and retailers concerned with sustainability can look for "values-based" foods that are grown using methods promoting farmworker wellbeing, that are environmentally friendly, or that strengthen the local economy. Researchers in sustainable agriculture often cross disciplinary lines with their work: combining biology, economics, engineering, chemistry, community development, and many others. Sustainable agriculture is more than a collection of practices. It is also process of negotiation: a push and pull between the sometimes competing interests of an individual farmer or of people in a community as they work to solve complex problems about how we grow our food and fiber.

To be continued...


  1. Wikipedia, Sustainable Agriculture (2021)

  2. American Farm Bureau Federation, Previewing Agriculture Emissions in 2019, (2021)

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