Sustainable agriculture is a method of cultivation while protecting the environment, reaping significant benefits and leading to thriving farming communities. Philosophically and in practice, sustainable agriculture strives to find ways in which farmland can be a continuous producer of crops. Dependence on sources not available on agricultural land, such as water, soil nutrients and adequate amounts of sunlight, is considered unsustainable because the farm cannot be perpetuated.
Although the term sustainable agriculture dates back to the 1980s, there have certainly been attempts in the distant past to create the best methods to cultivate the land. In the United States, for example, George Washington Carver’s pioneering work in the 19th century provided a better understanding of how crops such as cotton can deplete nitrogen in the soil. Eventually, cotton cultivation led to uncultivable land due to this depletion. Instead of artificially adding nitrogen to the soil, Carver advocated the cultivation of peanuts and sweet potatoes, which would naturally re-inject nitrogen into the soil. This principle of cultivation and crop rotation, which serves to improve the soil, is a hallmark of sustainable agriculture.
A farm that adheres to the principles of sustainable agriculture will follow these general rules:
Water is available directly to the land, whether by precipitation, irrigation of streams or wells. Submersible well pumps must run on solar or wind energy, unlike standard electricity, which is not available locally and removes the environment from fossil fuels. Any irrigation system must be adjusted to meet the needs of the crop without making excessive use of it.
Most pesticides are not used, as they can have a persistent impact on the environment as well as on the people consuming the crops. Chemical fertilizers are also not used for the same reasons. Instead, recycled cow dung and crop residues are recommended to fertilize crops.
Planting one type of crop, monoculture, is not sustainable as it will cause soil depletion and erosion. Therefore, several crops should be planted taking into account soil improvement.
Not all agricultural machinery that uses fossil fuels is sustainable because it depletes natural resources. Recent studies on the conversion of fossil fuel-dependent vehicles to the use of vegetable oils may make this recommendation more feasible.
Sustainable agriculture also depends on profitability. Every farm needs money to keep it running. This factor creates a bigger problem for those trying to apply sustainable farming methods to agriculture. Generally, products are transported from farms to suppliers to stores, which involves the use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel depletion is unsustainable and profit reliability cannot be calculated due to variable fuel costs and labor.
Small farms, which sell directly to consumers, can adhere more strictly to the above principles. However, most people who buy produce at farm stops still have to drive fuel-dependent vehicles to reach these farms. This problem creates difficulties in achieving true sustainability.
The principles of sustainable agriculture represent a step towards more environmentally friendly agriculture. However, very few farms can be defined as fully sustainable at this stage. Some environmentalists have proposed models for developing cities or towns where farmers would live close to other residents, thus reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Others suggest building community gardens on rooftops in already established cities to increase sustainability. While these models are still fundamentally conceptual, they offer an intriguing answer to the question of how we will feed the growing world population without further depleting our resources.