Sustainable Agriculture: Moving Toward a Farming Model Fit for the Future

A transformation is occurring on farms all across the United States. Our current food systems that have persisted for decades are built on bulk producing food through industrial agriculture. However, this system is unsustainable and not built to last. Something must change in order for people to continue to eat. 

Increasingly, innovative farmers and scientists have begun moving toward making agriculture more sustainable, but what does the term sustainable agriculture really mean? 

The term was addressed by Congress in 1990 in relation to the “Farm Bill,” or the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA). 

Under this law, sustainable agriculture is defined as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term: satisfy human food and fiber needs, enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends, and make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources.”

The current food system based on conventional or modern farming has produced tremendous increases in productivity and efficiency. Furthermore, food production has risen worldwide according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

The World Bank estimates that between 70 percent and 90 percent of the recent increases in food production are the result of conventional agriculture rather than greater acreage under cultivation. 

However, along with these positives of conventional farming, there are also some huge drawbacks as well. For example, these are extensive uses of pesticides, fertilizers, and external energy inputs that are associated with conventional farming.

Infographic by: Carrie Jordan

These issues are just a fraction of all the ecological problems associated with conventional farming. Additionally, not only are there environmental concerns that come with conventional farming, but also economic and social concerns as well. 

There is a widening disparity among farmer incomes according to the USDA. With an escalating concentration of agribusiness, industries involved with manufacture, processing, and distribution of farm products, agriculture is falling into fewer and fewer hands. Economic pressures have also led to a tremendous loss of farms, particularly small farms, and farmers during the past few decades. 

Historically, farming has played a huge role in the development of the U.S. What started off as a mainly agrarian economy has shifted to less than 2% of the population producing food for the entirety of the country. Nevertheless, modern Americans expect an abundance and variety of foods at a low price thanks to conventional agriculture. 

According to the USDA, “The rate of population increase is especially high in many developing countries. In these countries, the population factor, combined with rapid industrialization, poverty, political instability, and large food imports and debt burden, make long-term food security especially urgent.” 

Even though industrial agriculture is able to produce large quantities of food, it turns out that the foods have very low nutritional value. According to a study done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, “Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is on the rise, in part due to the excessive use of the drugs on factory farms, posing new and more deadly threats of infectious disease.”

All in all, the CDC’s findings show that conventional farming, though it does produce the quantities of foods necessary for the U.S., also produces extreme concerns for public health and safety. 

The mounting environmental, economic, and social concerns that are associated with industrial agriculture have forced many within the agricultural community to adopt a sense of urgency and look toward more sustainable methods. A growing number of innovative farmers and scientists are taking a different path. 

In fact, the growing number of farmers and scientists trying to push agriculture down a sustainable path believe that there is room for all types of farms in a food system based in sustainable agriculture. 

One local farm in Watkinsville, Georgia is a perfect example of a small scale, sustainable farming operation. 
William Breedlove is a fourth generation farmer at The Pastures of Rose Creek. The farm is a small scale, grass fed beef operation. “We wanted to do a sustainable grass fed beef operation to utilize the whole farm,” said Breedlove.

Cows graze in a pasture at the Pastures of Rose Creek on March 21, 2021 in Watkinsville, Ga. These cows are part of a sustainable, grass fed beef operation owned by William Breedlove.
Photo by: Carrie Jordan

He also went on to say, “Then we decided everything that went with it like chickens and how you rotate chickens with cows, how you plant grasses for the cows, and how you have the right amount of animals for your land.” 

At Rose Creek, Breedlove rotates the cows from pasture to pasture and moves chickens behind them. Instead of having to use insecticides in his pastures, the chickens eat the insects. Furthermore, instead of having to buy fertilizers with man made chemicals, chicken litter is a natural fertilizer for the pastures as well.

Hundreds of chickens occupy a field at the Pastures of Rose Creek on March 21, 2021 in Watkinsville, Ga. These chickens are rotated into pastures following cows as part of a rotation based grazing system.
Photo by: Carrie Jordan

“It’s good to add nutrients instead of take away nutrients,” said Breedlove. “So we’ve been working on our microbilogies of the soil through using these animals,” he went on to say. 

According to a study done at the University of Wisconsin, well-managed pastures have several environmental advantages and confirm Breedloves own findings while working at The Pastures of Rose Creek. Land in which animals are rotated have dramatically less soil erosion, require minimal pesticides and fertilizers and decrease the amount of water runoff. 

Animals in this grazing system are oftentimes healthier than animals housed in confined spaces. Farmers also reported fewer herd health problems after switching to a rotation based grazing system according to the study. 

Hundreds of chickens run after a golf cart at feeding time at the Pastures of Rose Creek on March 21, 2021 in Watkinsville, Ga. These chickens not only eat the insects in the pasture, but also are a form of natural fertilization for the grasses.
Photo by: Carrie Jordan

The Union of Concerned Scientists published an article in 2017 that stated, “This system has room for farms of all sizes, producing a diverse range of foods, fibers, and fuels adapted to local conditions and regional markets. It uses state-of-the-art, science-based practices that maximize productivity and profit while minimizing environmental damage.”

A system built on sustainable agriculture would include: Building and maintaining healthy soil, managing water wisely, minimizing air, water, and climate pollution and promoting biodiversity. At the most basic level, sustainable agriculture is good stewardship of the natural systems and resources that farms rely on.

Sustainability is a complex idea to navigate in the world of agriculture. However, sustainability does not have to come at the expense of a decrease in profit or a decline in the overall health of the economy. 

It is widely believed that the negative impacts of industrial agriculture are the price we must pay to feed the world. Nonetheless, the growing body of scientific evidence points to a more sustainable agriculture model that could be the answer to meeting our needs long term.

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