For decades, food production in the United States has been dominated by industrial agriculture. Under this system, large farms continue to grow the same few crops each year with the help of huge quantities of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. In other words, as many argue, it’s a system that damages our soil, water, air, and climate, and which squanders and degrades the very resources upon which it relies.
However, slowly but surely, the agricultural landscape is changing in the US and around the world. Today, more farmers and scientists are choosing a different path, leveraging state-of-the-art, science-based practices to create a system that takes into account our varied long-term economic, environmental, and social needs, and that makes room for farms of all sizes, foods of all kinds, and fuels adapted to local conditions.
Welcome to the world of sustainable agriculture: an alternative food production model that a growing number of researchers, industry experts, and farmers believe is the best way forward for our society. Read on to learn more about what sustainable agriculture is, and the different practices, research, and policies that are helping to develop and advance it.
What does “sustainable agriculture” mean?
Sustainable agriculture is a complex concept, but it’s broadly understood as having at least three facets. In economic terms, a sustainable farm is profitable and contributes to a robust economy. In social terms, a sustainable farm deals fairly with its workers and maintains a mutually beneficial relationship with its community. And in environmental terms, a sustainable farm is a good steward of natural systems and resources.
Interestingly, there is an entire field of research devoted to helping farms achieve these sustainability goals. Known as “agroecology,” or the science of managing farms as ecosystems, this area of study demonstrates that when farms work with nature rather than against it, they can avoid harmful environmental impacts without sacrificing productivity or profitability.
What are some examples of sustainable agricultural practices?
The following are some of the most important sustainable farming practices that have emerged from decades of science and application:
Crop rotation and diversity—Planting many different crops—rather than the single-crop or “monoculture” focus that industrial farms adopt—can contribute to healthier soil and more effective pest control, among other benefits. Specific examples of crop diversity practices include intercropping, which involves a variety of crops being grown in the same area, and complex crop rotations over a period of several years.
Planting cover crops—During off-season times, soils are often simply left bare on industrial farms. But when cover crops, like clover or hairy vetch, are planted in unused fields, this helps to prevent soil erosion, replenishes soil nutrients, and limits the growth of weeds, thus reducing the need for herbicides.
Reducing or eliminating tillage—Tillage, the traditional practice of plowing to prepare fields for planting and to deal with weed problems, can cause significant soil loss. Sustainable no-till or reduced till methods help to reduce erosion and boost soil health by inserting seeds directly into undisturbed soil.
Integrated pest management—To minimize the use of chemical pesticides, sustainable farms adopt a practice known as “integrated pest management,” which uses a variety of alternative mechanical and biological controls to keep harmful pest populations in check.
Integrating livestock and crops—Plant and animal production is usually kept separate in industrial agriculture. Livestock are typically raised far from the areas where their feed comes from, and crops are grown without benefitting from the abundant manure fertilizers that animals produce. But research is increasingly demonstrating that integrating crop and animal production can help farms to become more efficient and profitable.
Agroforestry practices—When trees or shrubs are included as part of a farm’s overall crop growing operations, other plants, animals, and water resources can benefit from their protective shade and shelter, and farmers can benefit from the potential additional income.
Managing whole systems—In sustainable agriculture, a farm isn’t just the cultivated areas, it’s the whole landscape, including areas like prairie strips or riparian buffers that are uncultivated or less intensively cultivated. Far from being marginal zones, these areas are integral to a farm as they help to control erosion, reduce nutrient runoff, and support pollinators and other critical biodiversity.
Where is sustainable agriculture in the US heading?
When it comes to US farm policy, the vast majority of public resources are still being used to subsidize the industrial production of commodity crops such as corn. However, there are some signs that the landscape may be changing. In response to the latest science coming from leading research centers in the farm states—such as the study on complex crop rotation systems that is ongoing at the Marsden Farm Research Center of Iowa State University—sustainable agriculture is slowly but surely being better supported by farm policy. For example, some of the provisions included in the most recent versions of the Farm Bill will help to support more organic farms, and will encourage the adoption of sustainable practices by more farmers across the country.