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Sustainable Farming Basics and Impacts

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Sustainable Farming or Sustainable Agriculture is a way of producing food indefinitely. Some ways of producing food protect the “life support systems” that we depend on – from healthy soil to clean groundwater – while other methods damage them. “Sustainable” food production means using approaches that do not degrade these essential systems but protect and enhance them so that food production can be sustained over the long run.

The industrial agriculture approaches that have come to dominate American agriculture have been advanced by ill-considered government policies and subsidies. Such approaches involve massive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers which are not sustainable, since they contaminate soil, deplete groundwater, pollute rivers, and cause other problems.

UCS promotes a more practical and scientific approach to agriculture—one that treats the farm as an integrated system composed of soil, water, plants, animals, insects, and microscopic organisms whose interaction can be adjusted and enriched to solve problems and maximize yields. This kind of agriculture is highly productive, takes advantage of natural systems and processes rather than ignoring or fighting against them, and is sustainable far into the future.

UCS is working to put U.S. agriculture on a wiser track, by transforming government policies so that they support smart, sustainable farming practices instead of damaging industrial methods.

These policies need to include scientific research to further explore the interactions among all elements of farming and to produce appropriate new technologies, extension services to update farmers about new developments in science and technology, as well as programs to help farmers make the transition to sustainable agriculture (a much more constructive use of subsidies than the current approach).

Organic Agriculture Basics

Certified organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. For food to be certified “organic,” standards must be met at every stage—from the field or ranch to the processing plant, and all the way to grocery store shelves. Organic crops are grown without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge, or genetic engineering. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals raised without antibiotics or added growth hormones.

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act to put the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of developing consistent standards for food products labeled as “organic.” After over a decade of regulatory efforts and input from farmers, consumers, environmental groups, and other stakeholders, the USDA organic standards were launched in 2002. UCS and other groups applauded the final standards for providing meaningful guidance to consumers who wish to support farmers and ranchers who avoid industrial agriculture practices that can harm human health and degrade the natural environment.

Since 2002, growth in the organic food sector has boomed, far out-pacing the conventional food market. Today, the USDA organic seal is the gold standard in consumer food labels, thanks to its combination of meaningful standards, strong enforcement mechanisms, and strict requirements for verifiability of producer and processor claims.

UCS is a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), a group committed to protecting the strength and integrity of USDA’s organic standards. Also, NOC strives to strengthen the standards where necessary and to advocate on Capitol Hill and at USDA for research and assistance to farmers that will enable continued growth in organic agriculture.

Sustainable Agriculture: A New Vision

We need a system of agriculture that meets our needs now and for future generations – and that means producing food in a way that can work indefinitely without degrading our health or the natural “life support systems” we depend on. But too often today, decisions are driven by short-term thinking and profits, rather than by a vision of the agriculture system that will best meet our needs in the long-term.

Changing agriculture in ways that make it more sustainable is a big challenge, but it can be done. Essential to accomplishing change is knowing where we are and where we want to go. Below are snapshots of the industrial present and a sustainable future for one agricultural region—the Midwest. Similar snapshots of agriculture in North Carolina or California would be different regarding crops and climate, as well as in the history and culture of the region. But those differences are less significant than the common vision: a thriving agricultural system that produces healthy, abundant food now and into the future while maintaining the strength and health of the natural systems upon which all life depends.

The Present

Imagine driving across the northern half of the state of Iowa. At first glance, you see rolling hills of seemingly bucolic farmland. But look closer, and you’ll see that all the fields consist of only two crops—corn and soybeans—mile after mile. And although you can’t see it, nearly all the crop land around you is doused with chemicals: herbicides and insecticides to control the weeds and insect pests that tend to run rampant when just one or two crops dominate large areas, and oil-based synthetic fertilizers that substitute for healthy soils teeming with beneficial organisms.

Off in the distance, there is a huge swine operation with massive amounts of waste that you smell long before you see it. The pesticides, fertilizers, and pig manure seep into the groundwater and runoff into local streams and rivers, and ultimately to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

In late summer, you would see huge fossil-fuel burning combines crawling up and down the fields, but you won’t see many birds or butterflies, or for that matter, many people in the fields. And while the highway is bustling with trucks, you won’t see many people even in the towns you drive through. Perhaps strangest of all, most of the food products on store shelves in this fertile farming region come from somewhere else. In fact, there is very little “food” growing here, as virtually all of the corn and soybeans that dominate the landscape are fed to livestock and poultry, incorporated into highly processed food products, or diverted from the food supply to make biofuels.

Why does Northern Iowa look like this? Over the past several decades, U.S. food production has taken an unwise and costly turn. Until recently, food animals and crops were produced nearby, frequently on the same farms, in an integrated, self-sustaining way that was often beneficial to farmers and society as a whole. But agriculture has undergone a profound transformation that has disrupted this balance system. Poorly designed food and agriculture policies have promoted the rise of CAFOs (massive “confined animal feeding operations,” which crowd many thousands of animals closely together in a small space that the land cannot support). And these policies have also promoted a huge overdependence on chemical inputs (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and so on). The results include serious problems from polluted air and water, increases in antibiotic-resistant disease, eroded cropland, damaged natural systems, and foods that must be shipped long distances.

The Future

What would Northern Iowa look like if we embraced a sustainable agriculture future, designed to produce food indefinitely without damaging our land, air, and water? Farms of all types and sizes would produce a variety of foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables as well as grains and livestock. The soil would regain its richness since farmers would no longer poison it to control insects. Sophisticated, modern crop rotation and the use of beneficial insects would control pest populations. Crops and livestock would have been bred to fit into the new smart pasture operations. Rural good water would be safer to drink, while rivers and streams would again run clear enough for people to swim and for fish, birds, and other wildlife to flourish. Furthermore, more Iowans would be fed by local foods, lessening the impact of food transport on our energy system and climate.

The Importance of Sustainable Farming

Where will the methods and practices of sustainable agriculture come from? Despite the decades of work in the courts, the media, and on the Hill, the environmental community has had a disappointingly little impact on pesticide and fertilizer use in this country. The sad truth is that the 30 years following Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring were characterized by dramatic increases—not decreases—in pesticide use.

The reason is simple. The environmental message “Don’t use pesticides” was negative and ran counter to what most farmers believed was their economic survival. Because no alternatives to pesticides appeared economically viable, most farmers believed their choice was to use chemicals or go out of business. Little wonder that despite lawsuits, a federal pesticide law, and growing public concern, pesticide and fertilizer use stubbornly increased.

Now things are beginning to change. Pesticide use is slowly diminishing, and it is becoming clear that new approaches to agriculture offer the possibility of huge reductions in chemical use. The importance of the environmental benefits of lower pesticide use—clean water, thriving populations of fish and birds, fewer industrial and transportation accidents—is hard to overstate. And these are in addition to the non-pesticide-related benefits of sustainable practices like soil conservation, soil health, and increased wildlife habitat.

While many factors have contributed to this turn of events, a pivotal factor has been the emergence of a group within the agricultural community who—rather than just decrying pesticides—developed and proved nonchemical practices of growing crops that made economic sense to farmers.

The signal feature of these methods is that they are both environmentally sound and economically viable. Their importance cannot be overestimated. If offered such alternatives, many farmers will turn away from chemicals rapidly and voluntarily. No regulation. No bureaucracy. No coercion. Without such alternatives, farmers will be pitted against environmentalists, and neither group is likely to win.

We need many more of these innovative, sustainable practices. Where are they going to come from? In general, from where they originated: the sustainable farming community. While university research, better commodity programs, and other institutional measure are vital to underpin these efforts, the key to the transformation to an environmentally conscious agriculture is environmentally conscious farmers.

10 Comments on "Sustainable Farming Basics and Impacts"

  1. DerHundistlos on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 4:11 pm 

    BREAKING: How Low Can You Go??????


  2. Davy on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 4:29 pm 

    A society behaving in a fake green way cannot practice sustainable farming. You can’t let fossil fuels or markets touch the farming in any way. If it does it is tainted. Don’t even bother calling it sustainable. This article sounds good but it is just more fake green BS. What we need is an acknowledgement of what fake green is as a starting point. We need to realize as moderns we all have “original sin”. We are all products of the oil age and unable to leave it even when we think we are.

    There is really no answers to this because we are trapped. Our highest esteem should go to those who are as close to real green as is possible. Instead we practice reality TV green with fake green ideas of what green is. I am happy with any effort to be more sustainable but I will not listen to BS either. Honesty about what is ahead means wisdom to see what is real and what is not. We can make efforts at sustainable farming more meaningful if we are honest about what it is and is not.

  3. Sissyfuss on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 4:55 pm 

    As my farmer neighbor told me a while back,” Corn and soybeans are where the money is. That’s all you’ll see me plant.”

  4. sunweb on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 5:12 pm 

    We have the Sustainable Farming Association here in Minnesota. Tractors and hoop houses (plastic) are part of definition by practice. They accept no challenges to this.

  5. ALCIADA-MOLE on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 5:31 pm 

    Nostalgia of an era that never existed. It’s the same as nostalgia for a glorious past that never existed either.

    Very dumb posturing in paper only and totally devoid of reality past and present.

    The reason big ag exist because it’s the economy of scale.

    It’s also because of what I perceive as the transformation of agriculture into manufacturing. It is manufacturing with plenty of oil input that had succeeded spectacularly in ag. also

    Actually sustainable ag. Succeeded and it’s called subsistence

    Sometimes soon this month the author will shop for food and it will be a product of big ag.

  6. ALCIADA-MOLE on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 5:39 pm 

    Garelic and Cumberland farms are the success examples of sustainable ag. It’s a negative success since the products being sold have little or nothing to do with small farming

  7. Makati1 on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 8:01 pm 

    Permaculture is for growing what YOU need to survive with a little left over to trade. It will never feed the hoards of non-farmers who want to do other things like being lawyers or economists or politicians or any other leach on society.

    If you do it right and keep ALL of the resources on your own farm it will work. Or, at least, until the climate changes so much as to make it impossible. But, you cannot burn the waste and sell off the crops for profit, thereby depleting the very resources (minerals, fertilizers, etc) you need for the next crop.

    Not that 1 in 100,000 Americans will even try to permaculture farm. They are conditioned to suck on the government teat and be docile serfs until they die. So be it.

  8. efarmer on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 11:11 pm 

    I studied Permaculture, and it is really just a modern, more complete combination and analysis of all the traditionally practiced forms of sustainable human insertion into nature, with work towards using synthesis of ancient and modern methods to augment it’s power and effectiveness. Like health care reform under any political party, or any major demographic issue, compassion is neede, American left the farms and moved to the cities to find work in the last century, Farmer have to play complex markets and futures and finance to keep the lights on. I dearly love Permaculture priniciples, but I dearly love American farmers deeplyl. Permaculture in their real world is a great idea on how to survive after they lost their farm and source of real income. They would if placed in such dire crap do it and survive, but they wouldn’t feed the world, or have thousands or hundreds of acres any longer. I am quite certain American farmers who fed thousands of families could feed three if force to permaculute. The numbers attached are very poor for outcome. The wheel of cheap energy exploits has all of us in the spinning force of it, my logical mind does not see any faction including farmers spinning free until it fails them horribly instead of sporadically. Permaculute would brin the land back in many places over hundreds of years. What to do in the interim is the big question.

  9. Shortend on Sat, 1st Jul 2017 11:23 pm 

    Listen, about 0NE% yes 1% of at land is grown organically… And of that 1% about 1% is sustainable without BAU inputs..
    Yeh, we have a future…

  10. Davy on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 5:55 am 

    Permaculture is a wonderful synthesis of new and old. Permaculture’s goals are sustainability and resilience which in our modern world is ante theme to efficiency with surplus returns on investment. I am attempting to do permaculture and I am trying to be a real green. I am doing this with grass fed cattle and goats. To do this I must have a low stocking rate. I still need equipment and I am living in the status quo of consumerism. I am attempting a life that is exploring how we can incorporate permaculture and collapse prep into a status quo with objectives that are against what permaculture and real green seeks to achieve. Efficiency and returns in a competitive world does not equate to permaculture.

    Successful permaculture is being done with people who are very good at what they do and in sweet spots where their crops are naturally successful. Many of these people combine these efforts with restaurants or retail. These restaurants and retail are connected to the status quo allowing fossil fuels to enter the equation. Many successful permaculture efforts are hobby farms with a husband or spouse working in the status quo. Many are retired people with investments supporting them doing this out of love for a wonderful way of life.

    If you study the decline of our modern civilization then you come to the conclusions permaculture basics need to be front and center to a transition to a less affluent world at a minimum. What is scary is less affluence will be just the start with dangerous decline likely snowballing into much worse. In my opinion the public should be supporting these efforts at a level we support sports. Sports are a non-essential we throw lots of money at. We should have community efforts at permaculture that are built into the cultural fabric. We don’t do this because it does not conform to capitalism. It would conflict with corporate agriculture. It will happen again when people are hungry but by then it will be too late. It takes time to organize efforts with supplies, equipment, and education. When hunger returns we will be in panic mode.

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