Sustainable Agriculture and the Environment

Posted: September 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

Agriculture forms the backbone of society and substantially contributes to world’s economic, social and environmental evolution. In recent times there has been a dramatic change in the type of agricultural practices applied. For example, advancement in technologies, mechanization, increased chemical usage and policies which support maximization of production,which have in turn increased the costs and environmental impacts.

We live on a planet which has limited resources and an increasing demand to consume those resources. We have had an opportunity to be prosperous for years but have to learn to manage these resources judiciously. The ‘Rule of 70’ tells us the number of years something takes to double in size, based on the growth rate.  So if human population grows by 1% annually it will take around 70 years for it to double up. The population of the world was 6 billion in 1999 and is projected to be around 9 billion by 2044, an increase of 50 percent  is expected to require 45 years. The population and consumption is multiplying exponentially, but the size of the earth is the same!

“Imagine that you have a jar filled with a bacterium at 11 PM and if the population doubles every minute and if the jar is completely full by 12 PM, the jar is half full by 11:59 PM. Thus time speeds up as you move along the exponential curve.” – Dr. Albert Bartlett.

This shows that we are currently in a critical situation with a scarcity of time!

worldpop

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function” – Dr. Albert Bartlett

Thus the need of the hour is to employ the latest scientific techniques to develop a type of farming which is ecologically secure, conserves the environment, makes use of renewable energy resources, economically feasible and also satisfies human needs.

Sustainable farming provides yields without undermining the natural systems and resources that productivity depends on. Farmers have to undertake a sustainable approach and use the best of current knowledge and technology to avoid the consequences of conventional farming, which involves chemical related damages.

Fossil fuels derived energy for mechanized farming was one of the main reasons for “Green Revolution” of increasing farm productivity. But the spot we are currently in, the fossil fuels are not helping but resulting in a permanent damage to the environment. Sustainable farming if followed with dedication can help us morph the damage done to the environment. The practices involved in sustainable farming will make way for long term benefits to the environment.

Climate Change:

Effects of climate change on agriculture: Climate change may have positive and negative impacts on the crops. Some research shows that warmer temperatures increase the length of growing seasons and the increase in carbon dioxide in the air results in more productivity by some crops. A warmer climate may dry up the soils and decrease soil moisture which increases the need for irrigation. Thus benefits to agriculture might be offset by the chances of experiencing heat waves, drought, thunderstorms and cyclones.

Effects of Agriculture on climate change: Farming activities serve as sources and sinks, for the climate change causing greenhouse gases. The carbon from the atmosphere is removed, and stored in the crops, which are agricultural sinks, by a process of biological sequestration. These crops remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to organic carbon by photosynthesis. Thus sustainable farming practices drastically increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil.

The most common sustainable techniques employed by farmers today to control weeds, pests, diseases and soil erosion are: Crop Rotation, Cover Crops, Soil Enrichment, Natural Pest Predators, Bio intensive Integrated Pest Management.

Achieving sustainable agriculture is not a simplistic choice, but a complex challenge. But as human beings, we prefer easily available options to difficult challenges. If we want to meet the required demands of the future, under circumstances of scarcity of water and other resources, we need to accelerate our pursuit towards  Sustainable agricultural practices.

 

References:

Burke, J. C. (2011, August). Sustainable agriculture a complex challenge not a simplistic choice. Press Republican

Sustainable Agriculture Techniques. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/advance-sustainable-agriculture/sustainable-agriculture.html

Carlson, D. (n.d.). Why sustainable farming matters [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uf_mrQpN1Hw

Schahczenski, J. & Hill, H. (2009). Agriculture, climate change and carbon sequestration. ATTRA.

Measuring sustainability in agriculture . Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVIpWW2vuVw

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Comments
  1. Exponential growth in people and consumption requires exponential growth in production. Math and physics indicate that a limit will be reached. How do you suppose the two producers of video links in your blog, the Union of Concerned Scientists and BASF (chemical company) differ in their views on how to attain a sustainable food supply?

    • rlmandel says:

      I sense what you are getting at and this issue is particularly interesting to me… the essence of the question is “are genetically engineered foods are sustainable?” My undergrad honors thesis was a review of the state of domestic GE food and its regulation with recommendations for policy development. The process allowed me to develop a pretty strong opinion about the use of such technology on food and, to most people’s disappointment, that opinion is that it depends. I think the most limiting and dangerous factor in the development of this technology is that all GE foods get grouped into one category and all are either “bad” or “good”, depending upon who you talk to, of course. In reality, the breadth of variation that is possible is literally limitless – how could we possibly label all of this as bad? And what do we risk losing if we do? However, in exploring these possibilities we must err on the side of caution. The most concerning aspect of the technology to me is the phenomenon of genetic contamination and the FDA’s determination that there is “no substantial difference” between GE and non-GE foods. There may not be any known human health implications related to consumption or differences in the way the food is processed by humans, but to ignore the modifications being made on such a fundamental level is shameful. I will stop there but I could go on forever; if any one wants talk details over drinks or a meal, I’d be happy to oblige.

  2. dpwv515 says:

    This is a great topic. It seems that we are again seeing a rise of Malthusian thought and concerns.

    In 1798, Thomas Malthus reasoned that the increasing global population would outpace the world’s ability to produce food. He predicted the world would run out of food in 1890 and massive population declines would result from global conflicts and tragedies. Although this did not happen, Malthusian reasoning reemerged in the 1960’s.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/malthus_thomas.shtml

    As the Green Revolution took hold and western institutions actively exported the model, the world saw dramatic increases in crop yields.

    However, we are now experiencing the unintended and perhaps unforeseen consequences of the practice. Heavy uses of petroleum-based fertilizers, high intensity water practices, and enormous mono-crop fields are raising the costs of food production and placing tremendous pressure on natural resources. It seems time for a change, and I believe we are beginning to see it with the rise of organics and distributed food production.

    p.s. I remember a professor showing this related clip in an undergraduate class, “the myth of over population”. I am not a fan of it but if you want a devil’s advocate, here you go…

  3. sallyjgmeyer says:

    Tons of information here – I learned a lot! Do you feel that a focus on local, small-scale, varied production fits into this picture of sustainable agriculture? Do you feel this is a good solution to feeding the growing population? I don’t know much about the topic, but I did really enjoy reading a book called “The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food” by Ben Hewitt. It’s a fun read that looks at a small cluster of towns in Vermont that sort of reinvented the model for a sustainable, local food system.

  4. jstavole says:

    Great post but I was wondering if you might be more specific in what you mean by “sustainable agriculture”, or rather, the products of sustainable agriculture. I remember having a discussion with a friend a few years back who insisted that GMO’s were included in sustainable agriculture because often these products are economically and spatially efficient while containing a fair amount of nutrition. Also, I’ve always thought that USDA’s definition for sustainable agriculture was kind of vague: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/nea/ag_systems/in_focus/sustain_ag_if_legal.html. So it would be cool to hear your perspective since you seem to be pretty into it!

  5. sustmeek says:

    I agree that changing agriculture into a more sustainable enterprise is an essential part of the sustainability movement. There is some great research being done about this by Wes Jackson, out of the Land Institute (http://www.landinstitute.org/).
    Also, Wendell Berry has written some great stuff about land use. Check out “Think Little,” when you got a lot of time… (http://www.barrylou.com/thinkLittle.pdf). Old but good

  6. janamcgee says:

    Thank you for this. I am interested in reading some of the references you supplied, because my own interest is closely related. I am especially interested in some of your statistics regarding land and water use, and especially if you know how much of that (roughly) is cash crops like tobacco.
    You may also enjoy this link, if you have not previously encountered Polyface Farms:
    http://www.polyfacefarms.com/
    The Salatins practice sustainable agriculture on a very personal level, but also from a business model. Michael Pollen devoted a chapter to Polyface Farms in his influential investigative reporting piece, the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

  7. saurabhspea says:

    BASF and the Union of Concerned Scientists have a completely opposite view towards the problems we are dealing with. BASF is a chemical company and wants to earn profits, thus it is marketing its products commercially using a Sustainability base. I do not think that it is wrong as finally they are producing and promoting sustainable products. UCS is more concerned with the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.
    I believe “Sustainable Agriculture” is a type of farming which does not harm the environment, uses least amount of resources, renewable energy and can produce maximum yield with great efficiency, without damaging the environment. So if GM crops help us in achieving this, they can be considered a part of being sustainable. I am basically a biotech engineer, thus I can discuss the genetically modified crops in detail. In my opinion, genetic engineering is an advancement in technology which we cannot ignore. The recombinant DNA’s which are created and used to modify the crops, undergo a lot of R & D and are tested many number of times before using them at a larger scale. Thus it cannot be considered to be completely bad. These technologies have developed to enhance the quality and maximizing the quantity of the crops. Sometimes they may contaminate the originality of the gene pool which is not good. But I have mixed views towards farming using transgenic crops and organic farming.
    I do believe that local, small scaled production can be a solution and feed the growing population. But it will only work if it is followed all over the world at a massive scale. And by the way, we always think of ways to increase production, whereas we also need to find ways to control the population, which in turn is a sustainability issue!

  8. saurabhspea says:

    The video “overpopulation is a myth”, I feel is a nice way to convince people that they do not have to be worried about the problems related to the environment. At a global scale, we can look at it through the perspective of a developed nation, a developing nation and a poor nation. A developed nation has the money and resources to improve the quality of life of the people even if the country is overpopulated. Whereas in a developing country, if the population is too high, then there is a scarcity of food, no jobs, poverty, hunger, increase in suicide rates, increase in crime rate and it takes a longer time for the country to be considered as developed. An overpopulated poor country would not even consider worrying about environmental issues as the major issue a person there worries about is surviving the day by getting a job and feeding themselves and their families. Thus it is a very complex issue and overpopulation cannot be ignored!

  9. ichamp89 says:

    This is a great blog and there have been some awesome comments already!

    Ag was my focus in undergrad, in particular sustainable agriculture and how we re-tool the current system to use less and produce more. When I think of sustainable agriculture, what I think of is something like this.

    The idea of overpopulation, in my opinion, is a relative one. Many factors such as per capita consumption, spatial placement and so forth all impact our definition of overpopulation. That being said, this post, and the many responses, have all done a great job of framing the issue.

    Great job all!

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