Sustainability is an abstract concept for some people. Here are some concrete examples of the impact it has on the planet, food supply, and society.
The global food system produces over $1.3 trillion worth of food every year and employs over a billion people. Moreover, cultivated fields and pasturage for livestock fill nearly 50% of the habitable land on Earth. These lands house and feed a diverse and resilient collection of wildlife, from microbes to bison and everything in between.
But as the human population grows, so does consumption. As a result, our food system has evolved to pull as many calories from the ground as possible with little regard for the consequences. Luckily, recent years have seen the growth of the sustainability movement. Keep reading to learn about sustainable agriculture's potential impact if we employ it worldwide.
Sustainability Aims for Enough Now, More Later
Sustainable methods may look different from one part of the world to another, but the guiding principles remain the same. At its root, sustainability is about producing enough food today without endangering tomorrow's food supply. In addition, it seeks to reduce pollution, lower non-renewable consumption, feed a growing population, and advance food equity.
Environment, Food, And Society Are In Danger
The need for sustainability is growing. By 2050, our planet will host over 9 billion people, and most of the growth between now and then will occur in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Unfortunately, our current system hardly serves its purpose with the current population.
The current system is responsible for tremendous devastation through pollution and resource depletion. Monocropping has led to soil erosion, deforestation, total depletion of soil nutrients, and a general loss of biodiversity on most farmland.
There are also social consequences. Family farms struggle to stay afloat in competition with their large industrial counterparts while labor abuses are rampant in developing countries. In addition, historically disadvantaged groups in the US and abroad bear the brunt of climate change and pollution. Luckily, sustainable agriculture can alleviate and, in some cases, reverse these dangerous trends.
Sustainability Impacts All 3
Sustainable agriculture has already made an impact worldwide. The specific benefits of sustainable techniques are too many to list here, but they typically break down into three broad categories – environment, food supply, and society.
Environment: Lower Emissions, Less Consumption
Standard agricultural practice is one of the main drivers of climate change. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock alone produces 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, rampant deforestation releases enormous amounts of carbon when trees are burned. Of course, diesel-fueled farming equipment is ubiquitous, and the worldwide food supply chain burns a tremendous amount of fossil fuel.
Sustainable practices that change the focus to biodiversity and selling (and buying) locally will pollute much less. For example, livestock has lower emissions when it grazes wild, and relying on indigenous crops obviates the need for transportation fuel. Furthermore, avoiding tillage cuts down on heavy equipment use.
Sustainable agriculture naturally replaces the most common agricultural pollutants. For example, natural biodiversity can eliminate reliance on chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Runoff laden with them has polluted countless waterways. Moreover, there is growing evidence that chemically treated food poses a risk to human and animal health.
Food Supply: Resilient, Local Farms
Our current system of mass-producing a small number of staple crops increases the vulnerability of our food supply. For example, if something goes wrong in Ukraine, 6 million children in the Sahel could starve. Even in affluent countries, supply issues 1,000 miles away can cause substantial price increases.
Sustainable agriculture relies on indigenous food sources to provide for the local population. The focus on landscape management and soil enrichment ensures that small local farmers produce a surplus of nutritionally dense food without polluting or consuming resources faster than nature replenishes them.
Society: Fair Labor Practices and Food Access
Nearly 75% of the world's severely impoverished people work in agriculture. Unfortunately, Affluent countries like the US and the EU subsidize staple crop production in poorer countries, with devastating effects on the land and society. The prices crater, ensuring that the farm workers remain impoverished permanently. Furthermore, harvests decline due to soil depletion, and farm operators spread out to get more farmland, often deforesting tens of thousands of acres.
Free of foreign interference, a sustainable system will keep nutrients and money local. Without monocropping staples, high rates of biodiversity will eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, reducing the impact of pollution on these communities. Moreover, workers will receive pay commensurate with the value they produce for their community.
Sustainable Practices Are Already Impacting the World
The sustainability movement is gaining steam, but there is still a long way to go. Industrial agriculture is still polluting the environment, depleting resources, and mistreating laborers. Yet, maintaining the push for sustainable practices is the best way to slow climate change, stabilize the food supply, and ensure that the world's largest employer – the food system – remunerates its workers fairly.
Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished – Large livestock plays a part in sustainability, potentially helping turn farms into net carbon sinks. So if you eat beef, ensure it was raised appropriately and contributed to a sustainable farm.
Avoid Imported Staples – There's nothing wrong with staple foods. But do your homework. Ensure your purchase does not perpetuate unfair labor practices in developing nations – especially if the government already subsidizes them.
Support Local Farms – Do your best to buy fresh, nutritionally dense food from local growers. It's a great way to reduce the carbon footprint of the food system, conserve resources, and promote your personal health.