With increasing concerns about climate change, governmental agencies and individual agricultural producers now look for greener food production plans aimed at decreasing our “carbon footprint” on the world.
The Agriculture Sustainability Institute at the University of California, Davis explains the sustainability concept as bringing together three main objectives: “environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.” Sustainability also involves stewardship of human resources such as:
- Acknowledging “social responsibilities” regarding the working and living conditions of laborers
- Addressing what rural communities need
- Protecting consumer health and safety for the future and the present
ASI describes sustainability as based on the concept of addressing today’s needs while allowing future generations the opportunity to provide for themselves.
Governmental Sustainability Plans
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its 2013 Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan, stated a desire to lead by example through using renewable energy sources, reducing water waste, and implementing better waste management strategies, among other opportunities.
How many farms emulate the DoA? Some more than others, both domestically and internationally. The good news is that most are aware of the sustainability concept, and many make efforts across the spectrum of sustainability strategies that help agricultural companies decrease their ecological footprint. The components of a good sustainability plan cover farm operations—from the dirt to water to pests.
Integrated Pest Management
Years of chemical use resulted in long-term effects in terms of the ecosystem. Sustainability plans aim to decrease that impact.
Integrated pest management, or IPM, involves carefully identifying pests present in crops prior to applying any treatments. According to Discovery, there is no need to eliminate some pests because the damage caused by them is minimal, and insecticides cost more than any possible financial gain from pest elimination. Other facets of integrated pest management include prevention through:
- Crop rotation
- Planting pest-resistant plant varieties
- Introducing beneficial insects such as certain lady bugs
- Poor irrigation system performance
- Water waste
- Using mulch to keep soil moist
- Planting cover crops that help retain water
- Recycling rainwater
- Recycling municipal “gray” wastewater
- Crop diversity, meaning the use of a variety of plants in the same species, protects against pests and plant diseases.
- Cover crops not only help retain soil moisture, but may repel certain pests and enrich the soil.
- Avoiding agricultural burning, reducing dust production resulting from tilling, and using less nitrogen-based fertilizer—thus cutting nitrous oxide emissions—all lower pollution levels.
If chemical treatments are necessary, integrated pest management involves only targeted spraying of pesticides specifically designed to fight the pest at issue.
Adhering to an IPM program requires commitment in real world situations. However, it is not an unmanageable process. For instance, Gilberto Salazar, a Mexican grower of grapes and watermelons, successfully implements sustainability practices via integrated pest management, which reduces the amount of chemical pesticides introduced into the environment and the food itself.
Sometimes, using chemicals proves more sustainable then employing “organic” pest killing chemicals or even completely non-chemical means. According to the Agriculture Sustainability Institute, a grape grower realized the use a mower or cultivator consumed more energy and compacted the soil, creating a greater environmental impact than a few applications of an herbicide.
As part of an overall effort to develop a workable sustainability plan for businesses, growers like Gilberto Salazar embrace integrated pest management and avoid pesticide use whenever possible. When absolutely required, all pesticides applied meet legal specifications of both Mexico and the country receiving the produce. By using small amounts when absolutely necessary, his company aims to produce natural, healthy fruits.
Any sustainability plan must include water conservation considerations, including:
Using only native species is another way to conserve water, but in terms of agriculture, that is not always feasible. Well-designed irrigation systems that protect rivers, soil, and wildlife provide sustainable approaches to water conservation.
Regional water authorities now implement programs designed to work towards water conservation, which is critical for both agricultural and individual users. Many are supported by growers such as Salazar, who is a member of the Irrigation District No. 051, Costa De Hermosillo AC. Similar to many water authorities in the U.S. and other countries, this organization promotes water efficiency and conservation efforts.
Efficient water usage goes far beyond water dispensing methods. Other tools include:
In making an effort to conserve water as part of a sustainability plan, take heed of some historical occurrences detailed by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute:
“The decline of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean region, Pre-Columbian southwest U.S. and Central America is believed to have been strongly influenced by natural resource degradation from non-sustainable farming and forestry practices. Water is the principal resource that has helped agriculture and society to prosper, and it has been a major limiting factor when mismanaged.”
Other Agricultural Sustainability Plan Components
Not all sustainable practices are practical for agricultural producers, although even partial implementation provides environmental benefits.
Sustainability for All
Many agricultural producers already embrace alternative energy such as wind and solar energy. While other options are out there, like hydroelectric and biodiesel fuels, solar and wind energy are more common in farming operations. Solar energy in farming lends itself to every from powering electric fences to drying grain.
Sustainability plans, when properly implemented, have great potential benefits. Not only do growers’ sustainability efforts improve their immediate environment, their efforts go towards improving the ecology of the entire globe.