Profitable, nutritious and sustainable agriculture are within our reach.
Sustainable agriculture is a holistic approach to produce food while conserving resources, and preserving the environment. It is agriculture following the principles of nature to develop systems for raising crops and livestock which are self-sustaining. Sustainable agriculture is the practice of social values, whose successes are vibrant communities, livelihood for on farm families, and wholesome food for everyone.
Conventional 20th Century agriculture uses industrial production as a model, and a vertically integrated agribusiness was the result. The industrial approach, coupled with substantial government subsidies, made food abundant and cheap in the United States and around the globe. However, farms are biological systems; and over time the industrial model has degraded soil and water resources, reduced biodiversity, and increased our dependence on the Agro chemical complex.
Sustainable farmers and researchers around the world have responded to the industrial model with ecology-based approaches called: natural, organic, low-input, alternative, regenerative, holistic, Bio-dynamic, bio-intensive, and biological farming systems. All of these systems have contributed to the understanding of what sustainable systems are, and each of them have an agro-ecology promoting biodiversity, nutrient cycling, soil conservation, water conservation, and integrates crop and livestock enterprises.
The five tenets to Sustainable Agriculture: Enterprise, Soil, Water, Pest Management, and Biodiversity.
· Diversify enterprises.
· Market outside the commodity supply chains
· Emphasize direct marketing and premium specialty markets.
· Consider forming a cooperative with other farmers.
· Add value through on-farm processing.
· Make fertilization decisions based on soil tests.
· Minimize or eliminate tillage.
· Think of the soil as a living entity; manage the soil organisms to preserve healthy diversity.
· Maintain ground cover year-round by using cover crops and mulches and by leaving crop residues in the field.
· Use soil-building practices to increase soil organic matter and support a biologically active humus complex.
· Use soil conservation practices to reduce the potential for water runoff and erosion.
· Plant perennial crops such as forages, trees, and shrubs.
· Plant catch crops or cover crops to take up nutrients which may leach or erode from the soil.
· Provide buffer areas between fields and water bodies to protect against nutrient streams.
· Manage irrigation to enhance nutrient uptake and decrease nutrient leaching.
· Produce livestock in pasture-based systems.
· Prevent pest problems by building healthy, biologically active soil; by creating habitat for beneficial organisms; and by choosing appropriate plant cultivars.
· View the farm as part of the ecosystem, and enhance pest–predator balances. The presence of a pest does not necessarily constitute a problem; base any intervention on monitoring thresholds.
· When encountering a pest, learn about its life cycle and ecology for the best control practice. Implement cultural practices to alter the surrounding habitat to encourage natural enemies of pest.
· Use pesticides as the last resort, when biological and cultural controls have failed to keep pest populations below economically damaging levels. If you have to use chemicals, seek out the least-toxic pesticide that will control the pest.
· Integrate crop and livestock production.
· Use hedgerows, insectary plants, cover crops, and water reservoirs to attract and support populations of beneficial insects, bats, and birds.
· Use crop rotations, inter-cropping, and companion planting.
· Plant a percentage of your land in trees and other perennial crops in permanent plantings or long-term rotations.
· Manage pastures to support a diverse selection of forage plants.
· Plant off-season cover crops.
Modern farming practices are contributing to the decline of nutrient values in our food.
Ever since we started intensive farming methods using chemical fertilizers in the beginning of the 20th century to enhance the productivity of our farms, we have selected fertilizers and cultivars of plants which provided the greatest efficiency in producing yield.
While these practices have contributed to a great abundance of food globally, these practices have lead to the decline in soil nutrients necessary to maintain nutrient values of the past. As our knowledge and techniques for selecting and growing methods improved, the sustainable cultural practices of the past were left in the background as modern tools were easier and more cost effective to apply.
Numerous studies have looked into the nutritional values of produce from the past fifty years, to show many of the nutrients we need have declined. In December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Donald Douglas a researcher at the from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry published a study of the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits. Their research found the following nutrients to be in decline: protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C. Other studies include A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent. A similar study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal,found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent.
Yet another study concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.
We can restore fertility to the land and revitalize the earth with nutrients that are essential to life.
There are solutions to correct the nutrient imbalance in our produce and our soil that are not cost prohibitive. There are practices which can help stem the tide towards a more sustainable future.
Micronutrients can be applied in small amounts and are well suited for foliar application. Foliar sprays use 5-10 times less fertilizer per application than soil applied practices, and place the nutrients directly where they are used on the plant leaf.
Over the years, some of this foliar-applied fertilizer will accumulate in the soil and provide a micronutrient bank which may be sufficient for a number of crop cycles, thus negating the need to apply foliar micronutrients each year. Micronutrient fertilizers are often added with compatible agro-chemicals to lower the cost of application. Micro nutrient foliar feeding is the most cost effective and sustainable choice currently, and has the most promise to returning us to healthier produce in the near future.