Applying the concept of sustainability to agriculture
The concept of sustainable agriculture (SA) can be described as a system of ecological farming practices, which is based on scientific innovations through which it is possible to produce healthy foods with respect for the land, air, water, and farmers’ health and rights.
The basic principles are employed to satisfy the needs of humankind for healthy food, to improve the quality of environment, to maintain the natural resources base, to use non-renewable and on-farm resources in the most effective way, to implement the natural biological cycles and to support rural economic development as well as the quality of farmers’ life.
The idea of sustainability involves farmers should:
- anticipate change – they recognize, accept, plan for, and create change.
- recognize and identify limitations and resources and create strategies to develop their resources and to minimize and overcome limitations.
- not be satisfied with average business practices or products; high quality characterizes every component of their business.
- recognize sustainable farms are businesses first and foremost, but profits are used to grow the business and to address broader social and environmental goals.
- take appropriate risks, incur reasonable debt, and make investments based on mid-to-long-term challenges and opportunities.
From common principles to common practices
Systems high in sustainability aim to make the best use of environmental goods and services while not damaging these assets and must be locally adapted and fitted to place. Recent empirical evidence shows that successful agricultural sustainability initiatives and projects arise from shifts in the factors of agricultural production (e.g. from use of fertilizers to nitrogen-fixing legumes; from pesticides to emphasis on natural enemies; from ploughing to zero-tillage). A better concept than extensive is one that centres on the intensification of resources, making better use of existing resources (e.g. land, water, biodiversity) and technologies. Key steps for sustainability are to:
- integrate biological and ecological processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration, allelopathy, competition, predation, and parasitism into food production processes
- minimize the use of those non-renewable inputs that cause harm to the environment or to the health of farmers and consumers
- make productive use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, thus improving their self-reliance and substituting human capital for costly external inputs
- make productive use of people’s collective capacities to work together to solve common agricultural and natural resource problems, such as for pest, watershed, irrigation, etc
Indicators and sustainability assessment
The functions of land are diverse and include: production; environmental biodiversity maintenance; climate regulation; regulation of the storage and flow of surface and groundwater resources; storehouse of raw materials and minerals for human use; waste and pollution control; provision of physical living space; archive or heritage; and provision of connective space.
The qualities and limitations of any land unit are based on these functions. The assessment of the quality of any land unit must, therefore, use methods that measure the ability of the land unit to sustain the targeted function.
The main objectives underlying each of the indicators concern:
- on the one hand, the preservation of natural resources (water, air, soil, biodiversity, landscape, and mining resources);
- on the other hand, social values that are characteristic of a certain degree of socialization and are implicit in sustainable agriculture (ethics, quality, socially-aware practices, etc.)
Let’s focus on objectives which form three sustainability scales:
Agro-ecological sustainability scale
This scale analyzes the propensity of the technical system to combine efficient use of the environment and the lowest possible ecological cost. This first scale includes the indicators illustrating the capability of the farms to be more or less autonomous in relation to the use of nonrenewable energy and materials and to generate more or less pollution.
- Farming practices
- Organization of space
This scale characterizes the integration of the farm within its territory and in society. It seeks to assess the quality of life of the farmer and the weight of the market and non-market services rendered to the territory and to society. In this respect, it allows us to look into issues that go beyond the farm itself.
- Quality of the products and land
- Employment and services
- Ethics and human development
The last scale, in which the indicators result from the technical and financial orientations of the production system, analyzes the economic results looking beyond the short-term and the ups and downs of the economic situation.
- Independence Transferability
- Economic viability
Farming and natural resources
Sustainable agriculture can be treated as an ecosystem approach to farming, hence one of the fundamental goals is to preserve main planet resources for future generations. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the idea. Let’s define the most valuable resources like water, soil, land, energy, air, and line out problems and applicable solutions within the above-mentioned technology.
A lot of agricultural areas require additional irrigation due to the lack of rainfall. For irrigation management to be sustainable, it should simultaneously achieve the following objectives: to avoid salinization and contamination of ground, to reduce inputs usage, to use less water than it can be naturally replenished, to avert the destruction of riparian habitats within watersheds. By using the remote sensing tools, the waterlogging areas can be quickly identified, thus preventing crop losses and managing the watering accordingly. You can get all the necessary data about water consumption, or moisture content of crops, or water equipment failure using the satellite imagery, in LandViewer.
Intensive farming practices of the last decades have a shattering impact on soil quality. They reduce the carbon level in soil, accelerate climate change, damage the soil structure, crop growth, and ecosystem functioning. To prevent further degradation, applicable sustainable soil management techniques should include no-till farming, keyline design, windbreaks to reduce the wind erosion, reconsider the usage of chemical fertilizers and protect soil from a water run-off.
Another problem of organic agriculture is an overuse of phosphorus inputs that leads to the eutrophication and depletion of soil fertility. The basic concept of how to avoid the unwanted consequences includes the usage of rock phosphate, which is a natural element of some soils and implementation of microbial inoculants such as phosphate-solubilizing microorganisms. The reflected energy is measured in multiple spectral bands beyond the visible light (infrared, thermal, etc.), which can be used separately or combined to indicate the exact phenological stage of crops for applying the right amount of inputs.
The urban development, landscape changes, decreasing of biodiversity, soil erosion and degradation are considered to be the biggest menace. You can monitor further devastation and land-use changes in LandViewer.
Now the agriculture is very dependent on fuel and non-renewable energy sources in general. The only way to overcome this reliance is to consider the usage of ‘energy-smart’ agricultural systems, moving towards renewable energy. The concept of solar-powered irrigation developed by Pakistani scientists is said to be the most promising initiative in this field.
Almost all the agricultural activities pollute the air with tillage dust, burning smoke, pesticide drift, nitrous oxide emissions while nitrogen fertilizer application, traffic, and harvest.
Options to improve air quality may include: using of crop residue for the soil, appropriate levels of tillage, installation of windbreaks, cover crops or strips of native perennial grasses.
There is no one and the only approach to fit all the requirements, each practice has its own characteristics and advantages, so selection should be done according to the specific situation and area. The basic ones are:
- Crops rotation and diversity promotion for healthier soil and better pest control
- Using cover crops to avoid erosion, replenish soil nutrients and decrease the need for herbicides
- Tillage reducing or elimination to prevent soil loss
- Using integrated pest management (IPM) to control pest populations and minimize chemical pesticides application
- Smart integration of crop and animal production
- Agroforestry practices meaning the mixing of trees or shrubs to provide shade and shelter for crops
Currently, there’s a wide range of different software which is designed to help in running a wide range of high-quality analytics easier. To keep the fast pace of technological progress, our software developers have recently launched a digital agro-platform Crop Monitoring for effective farm management.
The most used argument against sustainable agriculture is that it cannot “feed the world” due to moderate soil and crop management. But let’s consider the benefits of this agriculture approach.
The destructive environmental influence of sustainable agriculture is minimal as it aims to preserve and use the least harmful technologies and inputs. Sustainable farms do not use chemical pesticides, fertilizers or genetically modified seeds, antibiotics for animals and do not generate toxic amounts of untreated waste. All these factors have a positive influence on public health and the farming process becomes safer for farmers and produced food is healthier.
It also promotes and supports animal welfare. The farmers raise their animals in close to natural conditions to decrease stress, pain, illnesses, and suffering of the livestock. The social aspect of sustainable agriculture implies reconsidering the importance of family farms and rural communities. Combined with other strategies it can help to increase the level of occupation, education, health as well as to meet cultural and spiritual needs.