Sustainable Farming: What It Is, Practices, & More

In this guide, we’ve outlined:

– What sustainable farming is

– Goals of sustainable farming

– Sustainable farming practices and methods

– Some of the potential benefits of sustainable farming (although, we’ve also put together a separate guide on the potential pros and cons of sustainable farming)

 

Summary – Sustainable Farming Definition, & Practices/Methods

What Is Sustainable Farming?

There can be different definitions of sustainable farming

We’ve outlined some of these potential definitions 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

Intercropping

Considering Polycultures 

No Till, Reduced Till, & Soil Conservation Practices

Other Practices To Minimise Soil Disturbance 

Irrigation Systems That Conserve Water, Or Use It More Efficiently

Drains, Buffers, Terraces

Different Types Of ‘Green’ Fertilizer

Integrated Pest Management (& Biological Pest Control)

Integrating Livestock

Grazing Rotation

Agroforestry

Other Practices & Strategies

 

Firstly, What Is Sustainable Farming? (A Definition)

Different Definitions Of Sustainable Farming

Different groups might have different definitions of sustainable farming.

 

A General Definition

However, one way of describing sustainable farming might be as:

Farming methods and systems that can be sustained over the long term, and that meet general sustainability indicators (relating to reducing negative environmental impact, managing resources sustainably, and so on)

Sustainable farming might also be a broad enough term that it can include other subsets or forms of farming that are sustainable in some way, such as organic farming, regenerative farming, and other types of farming

 

A definition from wikipedia.org about sustainable farming is:

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

[wikipedia.org provide more detail on sustainable farming in their guide]

 

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

 

Potential Goals For Sustainable Farming

Goals Across The Main Pillars Of Sustainability

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 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 preventing negative impact on the environment from agricultural practices in general

Can also involve preventing environmental degradation past a certain point (such as past environmental planetary boundaries, or past unsafe or undesirable pollution levels on the 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 specifically agricultural industry.

But, can also relate to the profit/revenues for individual farmers, 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 non0renewable agricultural inputs like pesticides and fertilizers 

 

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.

This information might complement some of the information provided above.

 

Other Specific Goals Of Sustainable Farming

Depending on what is agreed that sustainable farming should involve, there can be different opinions on what the goals of this form of farming should be (and also how it should be tracked and managed).

 

Beyond that, specific goals for sustainable may include, but aren’t limited to:

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

 

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

 

– Preserving agricultural soil and land

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 and productivity

 

– Water conservation

Using irrigated water more efficiently, and using rain fed crops where possible.

Essentially, addressing water scarcity and water depletion issues with agriculture

 

– Reduce energy use, or meet energy demand through cleaner energy

This might be achieved through local sourcing and selling, and using more green energy sources

 

– Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

 

– Achieving desirable 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 (that are more holistic, and work with natural ecosystems)

This is in comparison to processes that involve synthetic chemicals and processes that rely heavily on man made technology

 

– Other potential goals

cottonedon.org provides more information on what might be some of the features and goals 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.

 

General Principles Of Sustainable Farming

Some of the general principles of sustainable farming that practices and methods are based around might include:

– Managing resources sustainably

– Reducing negative environmental impact

– Proper use and management of both crops/plants, and animals/livestock

– Protecting topsoil, and land, and preserving or improving soil health, fertility and quality where possible

– Reduce the use of synthetic or harmful agricultural inputs (like fertilisers and pesticides)

– Biodiversity in agricultural environments and ecosystems

– Making use of natural processes where possible

 

Sustainable Farming Practices & Methods – A List

Some sustainable farming practices and methods may be implemented individually.

In other instances, multiple practices and methods might be implemented as part of an overall system of farming (such as regenerative agricultural systems, just as one example)

Below is a list of some of the different practices.

Note that this is not a comprehensive list – there can be many more than what is listed here:

 

– Cover Crops

Cover crops can be planted in the space between money crops, and in other areas.

They can serve a number of functions and have a number of benefits

One example might be providing ‘cover’ for the soil from the wind and rain, and therefore protecting it from wind and water erosion.

Another example might be enriching 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

Involves rotating growing different crops on the same area of land, from one season to another, instead of growing the same crop season after season.

There can be a number of benefits to this.

One benefit might be that different crops will extract different nutrients from the soil, so, there’s less chance that certain nutrients are depleted from the soil (if the same crops is continually extracting the same nutrients season after season)

Another benefit might be that the same pests (like problem weeds) and diseases aren’t putting pressure on the same area over extended time spans.

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

 

– Intercropping

Involves growing two or more crops in close proximity to one another on a piece of land, and usually at the same time.

There can be several benefits to this.

One benefit might be companion planting, whereby one or both crops complement or benefit each other in some way.

Another benefit might be increasing total production, or yield, from the same area of land. This essentially increases efficiency. 

 

– Considering Polycultures

Growing polycultures involves growing more than one type of crop species on an area of land.

It’s in direct comparison to growing monocultures, which involves growing the same crop species on an area of land.

Obviously, crop rotation and intercropping are ways to achieve this.

Prioritising polycultures might have the benefit of increasing genetic diversity and general biodiversity in agriculture.

 

– No Till Or Reduced Till Farming, Or, Conservation Tillage 

The more soil is tilled, and the more intense the tillage is, the more the soil structure might be broken up, and the more soil erosion that might occur.

This might result in both poorer soil fertility and soil health, as well as topsoil loss.

No till, reduced till, or conservation tillage practices might help better conserve the soil.

As the names suggest, it might involve less tilling, or no tilling.

But, it might also involve specific practices that prioritise not disturbing the soil as much, such as machine seed planting, using crops that tolerate packed soil, and biological pest control.

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

 

– Minimising Other Forms Of Soil Disturbance

In addition to conservation tillage, minimising foot traffic on the soil, as well as other forms of soil traffic and soil disturbance, may also help conserve the soil.

 

– Irrigation Systems That Conserve Water, Or Use It More Efficiently

There’s several ways irrigation may help conserve water, or use it more efficiently. 

Drip irrigation is one method of irrigation that may use water more efficiently, and it may involve dripping water directly into the root zone.

This is in comparison to less efficient forms of irrigation, such as field flooding.

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

Fields that don’t drain properly may carry topsoil off into rivers, streams and other water bodies (which may even contribute to other environmental issues like sedimentation)

Drains, buffers and terraces might help channel, direct and drain water from crop fields, or keep it off certain areas altogether.

 

– Different Types Of ‘Green’ Fertilizers

Involves the use of more natural or organic fertilizers, like manure, organic compost, recycled or decomposing organic material, and other bio-amendments.

This might help add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

In reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers, it may help with addressing issues relating to the production footprint and environmental issues linked to synthetic fertilisers.

 

– Integrated Pest Management, & Biological Pest Control

This is 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 to consider.

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 & Animals

Involves integrating livestock alongside crop farming.

It can be beneficial in several ways.

Livestock and animals can provide manure as a natural fertilizer, but also, when rotated between land, their hooves can naturally till and turn the soil, without eroding it.

 

– Rotational Grazing (Of Livestock & Animals)

Where livestock are used in agriculture, systematically rotating them between paddocks or areas of land periodically helps protect topsoil from damage and erosion.

 

– Agroforestry

The practice of integrating trees into farming systems.

Trees can have a number of general benefits

Additionally, planting trees can be beneficial to degraded land, or low income farming areas.

Trees provide sun and rain cover to soil, but may also increase soil nutrients (or help with nutrient cycling), sequester carbon, and can also be used for wood.

Some trees also grow fruits and other foods 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.

 

– Improving Biodiversity

Of animals, plants, and different natural species.

Apart from helping with genetic biodiversity, it may help with natural decomposition, as well as attracting natural predators of pest species.

 

– Other Practices, Principles & Strategies

Other practices, principles and strategies that may contribute to more sustainable farming might be:

 

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 for these specific examples)

 

In a separate guide we reference soils.org’s list of land management practices that might reduce the likelihood of land/soil desertification

 

– On an individual or community level, more sustainable food production might involve supplementing some agricultural food production with food from urban gardens, backyards, or community gardens

 

– Some people have also suggested being aware of what agricultural products are most and least resource intensive and environmentally damaging, and placing more focus on improving them

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

8. https://store.almanac.com/the-importance-of-crop-rotation/

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