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Sustainable Agriculture Practices

How can we make agriculture more sustainable? In this article, we review some potential solutions.
Farming
© University of Exeter

Sustainable agriculture practices ensure we can meet the requirements of food production today, without compromising the environment or ability for future generations to meet their own food needs. Let’s have a look at some of the solutions to implementing sustainable agriculture.

Introduction

The yield gap is the difference between the amount of food a farm could produce and the amount of food a farm is producing. Given we’re already using the best quality land for farming, any new land that is changed to agricultural is likely to be of lower quality. A sustainable solution needs to bridge the yield gap, but also needs to recognize the ecosystem services that land provides – such as water filtration or flood protection (where the alternative is to build a filtration plant or engineer defences). For the solutions presented below, identify the economic benefits that each offers. Sustainability is about more than just the environment, and it’s likely that solutions will only be implemented if they offer long-term economic viability.

Selective Breeding

What if we could choose the best, most resilient, tastiest and beautiful crops only? This is exactly what’s been happening for thousands of years – the seeds of the best crops are grown again to pass on their traits. This can increase the yield potential of land by selecting crops that best match the land its grown on, and can help make a farm more resilient to the effects of climate change. For example, if an area is likely to experience more droughts over time, selectively breeding crops that are most water-efficient will help farmers to be more resilient to climate change.

Be more efficient with nutrients!

Only around 30-50% of nitrogen, and 45% of phosphorus, that is added to a crop is actually taken up by the plants. The diminishing returns from fertilising the land is perversely leading some farmers to add even more nutrients to the detriment of the surrounding environment. Selective breeding plants that use nutrients most efficiently is one solution. Another is to use new remote sensing technology to only apply fertilizer where and when it is most needed. Farmers should also work to reduce the loss of nutrients from soils. Which brings us on to…

Improving soils

Hedgerows and sediment ponds have been used around the world to ‘catch’ farmland runoff during heavy rain events. This means that it doesn’t leave the farm and can simply be scattered back over the crops once the rain stops. Reducing tillage (the ploughing of fields before a crop is planted) allows natural structures to form within the soil that improve water and nutrient retention. For a similar reason, adding organic matter such as manure to soils improves the soil quality and allows the tight binding of nutrients and water. Given human activity increases the rate of soil erosion by at least a factor of 10, it’s vital that we manage this as part of a sustainable agriculture scheme.

Soil covered with natural organic matter - old leaves, twigs and decaying vegetation Natural organic matter is important to maintaining high quality soils.

Diversify crops and don’t rely on monocultures

Monoculture fields only grow one crop at one time, and usually repeatedly. This makes them susceptible to attack from pests, as they can destroy entire crops incredibly quickly. With climate change, pest species are moving to new environments, and farmers need to prepare for this. Growing multiple crops together improves resilience. Similarly, growing different crops after each other improves soil quality and local biodiversity that can help make a farm more sustainable. It creates a variety of microorganisms in the soil, ensuring the soil remains healthy.

Sustainable ruminant farming

For food security reasons, reducing our meat intake is an important way to live more sustainably – 1kg of meat requires 3-10kg of grain. Animal farming can be made more sustainable with simple changes. Closing the nutrient cycle is important to keeping soils healthy, so using animal manure in nearby crop fields ensures nutrients are recycled back into the ecosystem. Allowing animals to roam freely reduces the risk of pathogens, as well as making the animals healthier. Diseases spread very quickly when animals are cooped up together. A British outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the early 2000s lead to the slaughter of 1.2 million animals.

How do we implement the changes?

Providing incentives has been a common method for encouraging farmers to make changes towards a more sustainable system. “Green payments” are subsidies that champion sustainable practices. The European Union has even introduced funding restrictions to farmers that do not employ basic sustainable farming practices, such as diversifying cropland. We can also place the incentives and choice in the hands of the consumer. Better education about where our food comes from and proper labelling of food will empower people to change their diets and change where their food comes from.

© University of Exeter
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