What Is Sustainable Farming, & What Are The Different Sustainable Farming Practices? (A List)

In this guide, we’ve outlined:

– What sustainable farming is

– Areas of, and goals of sustainable farming

– A list of some of the different sustainable farming practices and methods

– Some of the potential benefits of sustainable farming (although, this guide on the pros and cons of sustainable farming outlines more of the potential benefits and also potential drawbacks and challenges)

 

Summary – What Is Sustainable Farming, & A List Of Different Sustainable Farming Practices 

What Is Sustainable Farming?

There can be different definitions of sustainable farming, and also different aspects to it.

We’ve outlined some of these potential definitions, and some of these aspects in the guide below.

 

List Of Some Of The Different Sustainable Farming Practices/Methods

Sustainable farming practices and methods might include, but aren’t limited to:

Cover Crops

Crop Rotation

Polycultures 

No Till, Reduced Till Or Conservation Tillage (& Minimizing Foot Traffic)

Green Fertilizer

Integrated Pest Management (& Biological Pest Control)

Integrating Livestock

Agroforestry

Drip Irrigation, & More Efficient Irrigation Systems

Drains, Buffers, Terraces

Other Practices & Strategies

 

Firstly, What Is Sustainable Farming?

There can be differing perspectives between different groups on what should be classified as sustainable farming.

One way of describing sustainable farming might be as farming methods and systems that can be sustained over the long term.

wikipedia.org has another way of defining sustainable agriculture though: ‘Sustainable agriculture is farming in sustainable ways meeting society’s present food and textile needs, without compromising the ability for current or future generations to meet their needs’. They also go deeper into sustainable farming definitions, principles, etc. 

So, a core tenet/principle of sustainable farming might involve balancing short term and long term needs and goals related to agricultural production.

 

Areas Of Focus For Sustainable Farming

It’s worth noting that we’ve previously written guides about the potential negative impact of agriculture on the environment and the sustainable use of resources, humans and the economy, and animals and wildlife.

Sustainable farming may place more of a priority on environmental, resource management, social and wildlife indicators than conventional farming.

There can still be focus on making sustainable farming profitable and economically viable, and having enough production to meet demand.

But, there might be far more of a balance of these priorities, instead of making one far more important than the other.

 

As a summary, sustainable farming might lead to sustainable outcomes across the following areas:

– Environmental

Can involve the prevention of general environmental degradation past a certain point (such as past environmental planetary boundaries, or past unsafe or undesirable pollution levels – when talking about on a local level).

But, may also be specific to the individual environmental indicators, such as air pollution, water pollution, land and soil pollution and degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, waste pollution, and so on.

 

– Economic

Can relate to the economy or agricultural industry as a whole.

But, can also relate to profit/revenues, production, prices for consumers, and so on.

 

– Social

Can relate to the needs of the population as a whole.

But, can also relate to the needs, working conditions, and quality of life of farmers, farm workers, and those involved in the agricultural industry.

There might also be consideration for the independence and sovereignty of farmers and agricultural business owners.

 

– Contribute To The Sustainable Management Of Resources

Such as natural resources like agricultural land, topsoil, and fresh water

But, also non natural and non renewable agricultural inputs like pesticides and fertilizers 

 

Potential Goals Of Sustainable Farming

The different outlooks on what sustainable farming should be can lead to different opinions on what the goals should be, and how it should be tracked and managed.

 

Sustainable farming may have specific goals that include but aren’t limited to:

– Satisfy the population’s demand for food, fibre and other agricultural products, and consider how agricultural products can provided as healthy and affordable for consumers

– Using less toxic/harmful (and less persistent) fertilizers, pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals

– Preserving topsoil depth, preserving topsoil health and fertility (soil structure, nutrients, etc), and preventing soil erosion and land degradation. Degraded land and soil can become unusable, or can lead to reduced yields

– Using irrigated water more efficiently, and using rain fed crops where possible. Essentially, addressing water scarcity and water depletion issues

– Reduce energy use, or meet energy demand through cleaner energy (might be achieved through local sourcing and selling, and using more green energy sources)

– Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

– Achieving adequate yields and production

– Achieving adequate revenues/profits for farmers

– Preserve quality of life and working conditions for both farmers and farm workers

– In some instances, use natural or regenerative processes where possible (over processes that involve synthetic chemicals and processes that rely heavily on man made technology)

 

cottonedon.org provides more information on what might be some of the features of sustainable farming:

To sustain a method of production in the long term (and thus make it sustainable), healthy and climate change resilient soils must be maintained, biodiversity of seeds and wildlife must be promoted and the livelihoods of farmers protected.

The system can’t be reliant on non-renewable resources, such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.

Any kind of mono-crop production utilising non-renewable synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and Bt Genetically Modified seeds cannot be considered environmentally sustainable by any reasonable definition.

 

A List Of Different Sustainable Farming Practices & Methods

Farmers may implement one sustainable farming practice, or they could implement multiple practices in holistic approach that aims to get the different farm ecosystems working together – soil, water, green compost and manure, agroforestry, crops etc.

Below is a list of some of the different sustainable farming practices, a description of what they involve, and in some cases, the potential benefits of the practice.

This is not a comprehensive list – there can be many more than what is listed here.

 

Cover Crops

A crop or plant grown specifically to protect the soil from wind and water erosion, and also to enrich the soil with nutrients.

According to one source, terraces and temporary “cover” crops have helped lower soil erosion by more than 40 percent in some instances over a multi decade period

 

Crop Rotation

Growing different crops in the same area season by season (instead of the same crop).

This exposes the soil to different nutrients, increases soil health and lowers the risk of certain pests and diseases.

Complex crop rotation systems can outperform conventional monoculture in both yield and profitability according to one ongoing study

 

Polycultures

Polycultures are different to monocultures.

Polycultures involve growing different crops in the same area at the same time, as opposed to having just one type of crop.

Polycultures may have similar benefits as crop rotation.

 

No Till, Reduced Till Or Conservation Tillage (& Minimise Soil Traffic)

The basic principle behind tilling the soil is that the more you do it, and the more intense that tillage is, the more soil health and structure can degrade (and the more erosion that can occur).

Reduced or conservation tillage, or no till practices, conserves the soil.

It can involve machine seed planting, using crops that tolerate packed soil, and biological pest control – so the soil doesn’t have to be disturbed as often.

According to one source, no till combined with using cover crops can reduce the economic/cost loss of soil erosion

A similar principle to no till or reduced till farmng is minimizing foot traffic on the soil – this has a similar effect in not breaking up the soil.

 

Green Fertilizer

The use of greener fertilizers like manure, compost and recycled or decomposing organic material to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

This is in comparison to using synthetic fertilizers, which can have their own production footprint and environmental issues.

 

Integrated Pest Management & Biological Pest Control

The biological or mechanical control of pests and diseases.

This is in comparison to using synthetic pesticides and herbicides, which can have their own production footprint and environmental issues.

It should be noted though that pesticides derived from natural ingredients or compounds aren’t always harm free, as is outlined with organic cotton.

 

Integrating Livestock

Integrating livestock into crop farming can be beneficial.

They can provide manure as a natural fertilizer, but also, when rotated between land, their hooves can naturally till and turn the soil, and not erode it.

 

Agroforestry

The practice of integrating trees into farming systems.

Trees can have a number of benefits.

Planting trees can be very beneficial to already degraded land, or poverty stricken farming areas.

Trees provide sun and rain cover to soil, but also increase soil nutrients, can be used for wood, and sequester carbon.

Some trees also grow fruits and other food that can be sold or eaten.

Looking at examples of land restoration worldwide can provide further evidence of how tree planting can benefit land and soil health.

 

Drip Irrigation, & More Water Efficient Irrigation Systems

Drip irrigation is a way of conserving water and nutrients where water is directly dripped into the root zone.

Aside from using water more efficiently, a side effects of this might be that less fertilizer has to be used.

Beyond drip irrigation, other improvements in irrigation efficiency can also help conserve fresh water resources.

 

Drains, Buffers, Terraces

Soil erosion from water can occur when crops and fields lack proper drainage

When this is the case, topsoil is carried off into rivers, streams etc.

Drains, buffers and terraces are ways of sustainably managing crop fields – they can help drain water, and keep soil on the crop field where it needs to be.

 

Other Practice, Principles & Strategies

Other resources that mention practices, principles and strategies the contribute to sustainable farming are listed below:

Prairie strips (natural ecosystem strips), buffer strips, no till farming, beneficial microbes and continued research on eco engineering soils can all contribute to more sustainable farming (refer to the bbc.com resource in this guide for these specific examples)

In this guide we cite soils.org, and list land management practices they identified that might reduce the likelihood of land/soil desertification

– On an individual level, sustainable food production can also include urban gardens where people grow some of their own vegetables and food in their backyards, or in community gardens)

– Some people have also suggested being aware of what agricultural products are most and least resource intensive and environmentally damaging, and decreasing production of those that are most unsustainable and most environmentally damaging. Some types of beef production might be one example of a resource intensive food product, with several potential environmental impacts to consider

 

Sustainable Farming Vs Other Farming Methods

Read more about sustainable farming practices vs other types of farming in this guide

 

Sources

1. https://theweek.com/articles/554677/america-running-soil

2. https://www.farmprogress.com/soil-health/economics-soil-loss

3. https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2013-09-30/soil-erosion-tasmania-high-rainfall/4988140 

4. https://www.ucsusa.org/food-agriculture/advance-sustainable-agriculture/what-is-sustainable-agriculture

5. https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/follow-the-food/why-soil-is-disappearing-from-farms/

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_agriculture

7. http://www.cottonedon.org/FAQS

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